Feathered dinosaurs and the origin of avian flight
Biskis, Veronika N.
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It is now widely accepted that modern day birds originated from the clade Theropoda represented by bipedal carnivorous dinosaurs that thrived between the late Triassic and Cretaceous period. New research illustrates how the evolutionary assembly of the avian body plan began in these theropods with small fore limbs, large hind limbs and stiff tails, and progressed through a series of increasingly bird-like, transitional anatomical stages. There is also a great deal of homoplasy among dinosaurs however, or evolution of the same traits in distantly related groups, which makes it even more difficult to pinpoint the phylogenetic relationships among theropods. A limited fossil record and confusing temporal inconsistency has also led paleontologists and ornithologists alike to dismiss this crucial connection. They often attribute the origin of birds instead to a basal archosaur, ancestor to both dinosaurs and crocodilians. However the recent discoveries of feathered non-avian theropods, especially from the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous of Liaoning, China may finally lay the argument to rest. The scientific community has remained especially divided over to what degree feathers and other flight characteristics are present amongst the advanced theropods, and Dinosauria in general. Understanding this distinction helps separate each species into separate clades along the cloudy phylogenetic timeline as a function of feather development, and therefore offers insight into where they initially became functional for flight. Because fossils depicting defined integumental structures have been recently uncovered by the hundreds over the last 20 years, there is more evidence of this transition than ever. Through studies of theropod and avian physiology, we can gain more insight into the macroevolutionary principles and selective pressures that led dinosaurs to take to the sky.
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