The basal avian Sapeornis chaoyangensis (From Wikimedia Commons)
Birds originated from a theropod lineage more than 150 million years ago. By the Early Cretaceous, they diversified, evolving into a number of groups of varying anatomy and ecology. In recent years, several discovered fossils of theropods and early birds have filled the morphological, functional, and temporal gaps along the line to modern birds. Most of these fossils are from the Jehol Biota of northeastern China, dated between approximately 130.7 and 120 million years ago. The Jehol Biota is formed from two formations: the Yixian Formation, and the Jiufotang Formation, and contain the most diversified avifauna known to date. Among them was the long bony-tailed Jeholornis, only slightly more derived than Archaeopteryx, that lived with Sapeornis, Confuciusornis, and the earliest members of Enantiornithes and Ornithuromorpha. The last two groups, form the clade Ornithothoraces, characterized by a keeled sternum, elongate coracoid, narrow furcula, and reduced hand.
Ornithuromorphs, include Gansus, Patagopteryx, Yixianornis, and Apsaravis, which form a grade on the line to Ornithurae, a derived subgroup that includes modern birds and their closest fossil relatives (Brusatte et al., 2015).
The single best record of a Cretaceous neornithine is the partial skeleton of Vegavis from the latest Cretaceous (around 68–66 million years ago) of Antarctica.
Zhenyuanlong suni (photo by Junchang Lu) from the Jehol Biota.
Anatomical features like aspects of egg shape, ornamentation, microstructure, and porosity of living birds trace their origin to the maniraptoran theropods, such as oviraptorosaurs and troodontids. In addition, some preserving brooding postures, are known for four oviraptorosaurs, two troodontids, a dromaeosaur, and one basal bird providing clear evidence for parental care of eggs.
In birds, particularly their forebrains, are expanded relative to body size. Birds also exhibit the most advanced vertebrate visual system, with a highly developed ability to distinguish colors over a wide range of wavelengths.
Feathers were once considered to be unique avialan structures. The megalosaurus Sciurumimus, the compsognathus Sinosauropteryx, and a few other dinosaurs, document the appearance of primitive feathers. Zhenyuanlong suni, from the Yixian Formation, provides the first evidence of well-developed pennaceous feathers in a large, non-flying dromaeosaur. Evidence indicates that the earliest feathers evolved in non-flying dinosaurs, likely for display and/or thermoregulation, and later were co-opted into flight structures in the earliest birds (Brusatte et al., 2015).
The basal avian Jeholornis prima.
The evolution of flight involved a series of adaptive changes at the morphological and molecular levels, like the fusion and elimination of some bones and the pneumatization of the remaining ones. Archaeopteryx lacked a bony sternum and a compensatory specialized gastral basket for anchoring large flight muscles (O’Connor et al., 2015), while Jelohornis had several derived flight-related features of modern birds like fused sacral vertebrae, an elongated coracoid with a procoracoid process, a complex sternum, a narrow furcula, and curved scapula. In Enantiornithines, their robust pygostyle appears to have been unable to support the muscles that control the flight feathers on the tail in modern birds. The increased metabolism associated with homeothermy and powered flight requires an efficient gas exchange process during pulmonary ventilation. Recent anatomical and physiological studies show that alligators, and monitor lizards exhibit respiratory systems and unidirectional breathing akin to those of birds, which indicate that unidirectional breathing is a primitive characteristic of archosaurs or an even more inclusive group with the complex air-sac system evolving later within Archosauria.
The earliest diversification of extant birds (Neornithes) occurred during the Cretaceous period and after the mass extinction event at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary, the Neoaves, the most diverse avian clade, suffered a rapid global expansion and radiation. A genome-scale molecular phylogeny indicates that nearly all modern ordinal lineages were formed within 15 million years after the extinction, suggesting a particularly rapid period of both genetic evolution and the formation of new species. Today, with more than 10500 living species, birds are the most species-rich class of tetrapod vertebrates.
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