Evolutionary History of Birds

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the derived characteristics in birds that facilitate flight
  • Describe the evolutionary history of birds

Thanks to amazing new fossil discoveries in China, the evolutionary history of birds has become clearer, even though bird bones do not fossilize as well as those of other vertebrates. As we’ve seen earlier, birds are highly modified diapsids, but rather than having two fenestrations or openings in their skulls behind the eye, the skulls of modern birds are so specialized that it is difficult to see any trace of the original diapsid condition.

Birds belong to a group of diapsids called the archosaurs, which includes three other groups: living crocodilians, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs. Overwhelming evidence shows that birds evolved within the clade Dinosauria, which is further subdivided into two groups, the Saurischia (“lizard hips”) and the Ornithischia (“bird hips”). Despite the names of these groups, it was not the bird-hipped dinosaurs that gave rise to modern birds. Rather, Saurischia diverged into two groups: One included the long-necked herbivorous dinosaurs, such as Apatosaurus. The second group, bipedal predators called theropods, gave rise to birds. This course of evolution is highlighted by numerous similarities between late (maniraptoran) theropod fossils and birds, specifically in the structure of the hip and wrist bones, as well as the presence of the wishbone, formed by the fusion of the clavicles.

The clade Neornithes includes the avian crown group, which comprises all living birds and the descendants from their most recent common maniraptoran ancestor. One well-known and important fossil of an animal that appears “intermediate” between dinosaurs and birds is Archaeopteryx (Figure 1), which is from the Jurassic period (200 to 145 MYA). Archaeopteryx has characteristics of both maniraptoran dinosaurs and modern birds. Some scientists propose classifying it as a bird, but others prefer to classify it as a dinosaur. Traits in skeletons of Archaeopteryx like those of a dinosaur included a jaw with teeth and a long bony tail. Like birds, it had feathers modified for flight, both on the forelimbs and on the tail, a trait associated only with birds among modern animals. Fossils of older feathered dinosaurs exist, but the feathers may not have had the characteristics of modern flight feathers.

Part a shows a bird on the ground, and another coasting toward the ground. Part b shows a fossilized bird, with feathers visible.

Figure 1. (a) Archaeopteryx lived in the late Jurassic period around 150 million years ago. It had cuplike thecodont teeth like a dinosaur, but had (b) flight feathers like modern birds, which can be seen in this fossil. Note the claws on the wings, which are still found in a number of birds, such as the newborn chicks of the South American Hoatzin.

The Evolution of Flight in Birds

There are two basic hypotheses that explain how flight may have evolved in birds: the arboreal (“tree”) hypothesis and the terrestrial (“land”) hypothesis. The arboreal hypothesis posits that tree-dwelling precursors to modern birds jumped from branch to branch using their feathers for gliding before becoming fully capable of flapping flight. In contrast to this, the terrestrial hypothesis holds that running (perhaps pursuing active prey such as small cursorial animals) was the stimulus for flight. In this scenario, wings could be used to capture prey and were preadapted for balance and flapping flight. Ostriches, which are large flightless birds, hold their wings out when they run, possibly for balance. However, this condition may represent a behavioral relict of the clade of flying birds that were their ancestors. It seems more likely that small feathered arboreal dinosaurs, were capable of gliding (and flapping) from tree to tree and branch to branch, improving the chances of escaping enemies, finding mates, and obtaining prey such as flying insects. This early flight behavior would have also greatly increased the opportunity for species dispersal.

Although we have a good understanding of how feathers and flight may have evolved, the question of how endothermy evolved in birds (and other lineages) remains unanswered. Feathers provide insulation, but this is only beneficial for thermoregulatory purposes if body heat is being produced internally. Similarly, internal heat production is only viable for the evolution of endothermy if insulation is present to retain that infrared energy. It has been suggested that one or the other—feathers or endothermy—evolved first in response to some other selective pressure (e.g., the ability to be active at night, provide camouflage, repel water, or serve as signals for mate selection). It seems probable that feathers and endothermy coevolved together, the improvement and evolutionary advancement of feathers reinforcing the evolutionary advancement of endothermy, and so on.

The photo shows a bird sitting on a branch.

Figure 2. Shanweiniao cooperorum was a species of Enantiornithes that did not survive past the Cretaceous period. (credit: Nobu Tamura)

During the Cretaceous period (145 to 66 MYA), a group known as the Enantiornithes was the dominant bird type (Figure 2). Enantiornithes means “opposite birds,” which refers to the fact that certain bones of the shoulder are joined differently than the way the bones are joined in modern birds. Like Archaeopteryx, these birds retained teeth in their jaws, but did have a shortened tail, and at least some fossils have preserved “fans” of tail feathers. These birds formed an evolutionary lineage separate from that of modern birds, and they did not survive past the Cretaceous. Along with the Enantiornithes, however, another group of birds—the Ornithurae (“bird tails”), with a short, fused tail or pygostyle—emerged from the evolutionary line that includes modern birds. This clade was also present in the Cretaceous.

After the extinction of Enantiornithes, the Ornithurae became the dominant birds, with a large and rapid radiation occurring after the extinction of the dinosaurs during the Cenozoic era (66 MYA to the present). Molecular analysis based on very large data sets has produced our current understanding of the relationships among living birds. There are three major clades: the Paleognathae, the Galloanserae, and the Neoaves. The Paleognathae (“old jaw”) or ratites (polyphyletic) are a group of flightless birds including ostriches, emus, rheas, and kiwis. The Galloanserae include pheasants, ducks, geese and swans. The Neoaves (“new birds”) includes all other birds. The Neoaves themselves have been distributed among five clades:[1] Strisores (nightjars, swifts, and hummingbirds), Columbaves (turacos, bustards, cuckoos, pigeons, and doves), Gruiformes (cranes), Aequorlitornithes (diving birds, wading birds, and shorebirds), and Inopinaves (a very large clade of land birds including hawks, owls, woodpeckers, parrots, falcons, crows, and songbirds). Despite the current classification scheme, it is important to understand that phylogenetic revisions, even for the extant birds, are still taking place.

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  1. Prum, RO et al. 2015. A comprehensive phylogeny of birds (Aves) using targeted next-generation DNA sequencing. Nature 526: 569 - 573. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature15697