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The evolution of birds is thought to have begun in the Jurassic Period, with the earliest birds derived from theropod dinosaurs. Birds are categorized as a biological class, Aves. The earliest known species of class Aves is Archaeopteryx lithographica, from the Late Jurassic period, though Archaepteryx is not commonly considered to have been a true bird. Modern phylogenies place birds in the dinosaur clade Theropoda. According to the current consensus, Aves and a sister group, the order Crocodilia, together are the sole living members of an unranked "reptile" clade, the Archosauria.
Phylogenetically, Aves is usually defined as all descendants of the most recent common ancestor of a specific modern bird species (such as the Passer domesticus), and either Archaeopteryx, or some prehistoric species closer to Neornithes (to avoid the problems caused by the unclear relationships of Archaeopteryx to other theropods). If the latter classification is used then the larger group is termed Avialae.
- Main article: Origin of birds
- see also: Avicephala
There is significant evidence that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs, specifically, that birds are members of Maniraptora, a group of theropods which includes dromaeosaurs and oviraptorids, among others. As more non-avian theropods that are closely related to birds are discovered, the formerly clear distinction between non-birds and birds becomes less so. Recent discoveries in northeast China (Liaoning Province), demonstrating that many small theropod dinosaurs had feathers, contribute to this ambiguity.
The basal bird Archaeopteryx, from the Jurassic, is well-known as one of the first "missing links" to be found in support of evolution in the late 19th century, though it is not considered a direct ancestor of modern birds. Confuciusornis is another early bird; it lived in the Early Cretaceous. Both may be predated by Protoavis texensis, though the fragmentary nature of this fossil leaves it open to considerable doubt if this was a bird ancestor. Other Mesozoic birds include the Confuciusornis, the Enantiornithes, Yanornis, Ichthyornis, Gansus, and the Hesperornithiformes - a group of flightless divers resembling grebes and loons.
The recently (2002) discovered dromaeosaur Cryptovolans (which may be a Microraptor) was capable of powered flight, possessed a sternal keel and had ribs with uncinate processes. In fact, Cryptovolans makes a better "bird" than Archaeopteryx which is missing some of these modern bird features. Because of this, some paleontologists have suggested that dromaeosaurs are actually basal birds whose larger members are secondarily flightless, i.e. that dromaeosaurs evolved from birds and not the other way around. Evidence for this theory is currently inconclusive, but digs continue to unearth fossils (especially in China) of the strange feathered dromaeosaurs. At any rate, it is fairly certain that flight utilizing feathered wings existed in the mid-Jurassic theropods and was "tried out" in several lineages and variants by the mid-Cretaceous, such as in Confuciusornis which had some peculiar features. For example, its vestigial tail was unfit for steering, and its wing shape seems rather specialized although the arm skeleton was still quite "dinosaurian").
Although ornithischian (bird-hipped) dinosaurs share the same hip structure as birds, birds actually originated from the saurischian (lizard-hipped) dinosaurs if the dinosaurian origin theory is correct. They thus arrived at their hip structure condition independently. In fact, the bird-like hip structure also developed a third time among a peculiar group of theropods, the Therizinosauridae.
An alternate theory to the dinosaurian origin of birds, espoused by a few scientists (notably Larry Martin and Alan Feduccia), states that birds (including maniraptoran "dinosaurs") evolved from early archosaurs like Longisquama, a theory which is contested by most other paleontologists, and by experts in feather development and evolution.
Adaptive radiation of birds
Modern birds are classified in Neornithes, which are now known to have evolved into some basic lineages by the end of the Cretaceous (see Vegavis). The Neornithes are split into the paleognaths and neognaths.
The paleognaths include the tinamous (found only in Central and South America) and the ratites which nowadays are found almost exclusively on the Southern Hemisphere. The ratites are large flightless birds, and include ostriches, cassowaries, kiwis and emus. A few scientists propose that the ratites represent an artificial grouping of birds which have independently lost the ability to fly in a number of unrelated lineages[How to reference and link to summary or text]; in any case, the available data regarding their evolution is still very confusing.
The basal divergence from the remaining Neognathes was that of the Galloanserae, the superorder containing the Anseriformes (ducks, geese and swans), and the Galliformes (the pheasants, grouse, and their allies).
The dates for the splits are a matter of considerable debate amongst scientists. It is agreed that the Neornithes evolved in the Cretaceous and that the split between the Galloanserae and the other neognaths - the Neoaves - occurred before the K-T extinction event, but there are different opinions about whether the radiation of the remaining neognaths occurred before of after the extinction of the other dinosaurs. This disagreement is in part caused by a divergence in the evidence, with molecular dating suggesting a Cretaceous radiation, a small and equivocal neoavian fossil record from Cretaceous, and most living families turning up during the Paleogene. Attempts made to reconcile the molecular and fossil evidence have proved controversial.
On the other hand, two factors must be considered: First, molecular clocks cannot be considered reliable in the absence of robust fossil calibration, whereas the fossil record is naturally incomplete. Second, in reconstructed phylogenetic trees, the time and pattern of lineage separation corresponds to the evolution of the characters (such as DNA sequences, morphological traits etc) studied, not to the actual evolutionary pattern of the lineages; these ideally should not differ by much, but may well do so in practice.
Considering this, it is easy to see that fossil data, compared to molecular data, tends to be more accurate in general, but also to underestimate divergence times: morphological traits, being the product of entire developmental genetics networks, usually only start to diverge some time after a lineage split would become apparent in DNA sequence comparison - especially if the sequences used contain many silent mutations.
Classification of modern species
- see also: Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy and dinosaur classification
The phylogenetic classification of birds is a contentious issue. Sibley & Ahlquist's Phylogeny and Classification of Birds (1990) is a landmark work on the classification of birds (although frequently debated and constantly revised). A preponderance of evidence suggests that most modern bird orders constitute good clades. However, scientists are not in agreement as to the precise relationships between the orders; evidence from modern bird anatomy, fossils and DNA have all been brought to bear on the problem but no strong consensus has emerged. As of the mid-2000s, new fossil and molecular data provide an increasingly clear picture of the evolution of modern bird orders, and their relationships. For example, the Charadriiformes seem to consititute an ancient and distinct lineage. Our understanding of the interrelationships of lower level taxa also continue to increase, particularly in the massively diverse perching bird order Passeriformes.
- Padian K & Chiappe LM (1997). "Bird Origins" Currie PJ & Padian K Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs, 41-96, San Diego: Academic Press.
- Gauthier, J (1986). "Saurischian Monophyly and the origin of birds" Padian K The Origin of Birds and the Evolution of Flight. Mem. California Acad. Sci 8, 1-55.
- Hou L,Martin M, Zhou Z & Feduccia A, (1996) "Early Adaptive Radiation of Birds: Evidence from Fossils from Northeastern China" Science 274(5290): 1164-1167 Abstract
- Norell, M & Ellison M (2005) Unearthing the Dragon, The Great Feathered Dinosaur Discovery Pi Press, New York, ISBN 0-13-186266-9
- Feduccia A, Lingham-Soliar T, Hinchliffe JR (2005) "Do feathered dinosaurs exist? Testing the hypothesis on neontological and paleontological evidence" Journal of Morphology 266(2): 125-166
- Prum R (2003) "Are Current Critiques Of The Theropod Origin Of Birds Science? Rebuttal To Feduccia 2002" Auk 120(2) 550-561
- Ericson PGP, Anderson CL, Britton T, Elzanowski A, Johansson US, Kallersjo M, Ohlson JI, Parsons TJ, Zuccon D, Mayr G (2006)"Diversification of Neoaves: integration of molecular sequence data and fossils" Biology Letters 2(4): 543-547
- Brown J, Payn B, & Mindell D (2006) "Nuclear DNA does not reconcile ‘rocks’ and ‘clocks’ in Neoaves: a comment on Ericson et al. Biology Letters 3 1-3
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