Birds originated from a theropod lineage more than 150 million years ago. Their evolutionary history is one of the most enduring and fascinating debates in paleontology. In recent years, several discovered fossils as well as innovative studies of living bird behavior, have enriched our understanding of early paravian evolution and flight origins. The discovered fossils demonstrate that distinctive bird characteristics such as feathers, flight, endothermic physiology, unique strategies for reproduction and growth, and a novel pulmonary system have a sequential and stepwise transformational pattern, with many arising early in dinosaur evolution, like the unusually crouched hindlimb for bipedal locomotion,the furcula and the “semilunate” carpal that appeared early in the theropod lineage.
The new paravian theropod, Hesperornithoides miessleriis, from the Late Jurassic Morrison Formation of east–central Wyoming, provides new clues about paravian relationships, as well as the acquisition of flight-related characters in stem avians. Nicknamed “Lori”, and with an estimated length of 89 cm, the new specimen is significantly smaller than other relatively complete theropods from the Morrison Formation. Hesperornithoides lived in a wetland environments with herbaceous plants, but no trees. The habitat, combined with limb proportions indicate that the new specimen was clearly terrestrial.
Hesperornithoides exhibits the following combination of characters: pneumatic jugal; short posterior lacrimal process; quadrate forms part of lateral margin of paraquadrate foramen; small external mandibular fenestra, humeral entepicondyle >15% of distal humeral width; manual ungual III subequal in size to ungual II; mediodistal corner of tibia exposed anteriorly. The holotype (WYDICE-DML-001) is a partially articulated skeleton consisting of an almost articulated skull, five cervical vertebrae, isolated anterior dorsal rib, portions of 12 caudal vertebrae, five chevrons, partial left scapula and coracoid, portions of the proximal left humerus and distal right humerus, left ulna and radius, radiale, semilunate carpal, left metacarpals I–III, manual phalanges III-2 and 3, manual unguals I, II, and III, ilial fragment, most of an incomplete femur, right and left tibiae and fibulae, left astragalus and calcaneum, portions of right and left metatarsal packets, left pedal phalanges III-1, III-2, III-3, IV-1, IV-2, IV-3, IV-4, and pedal unguals II and III and the proximal portion of IV. The cranial elements are preserved in a separate “skull block”, whereas the axial skeleton is distributed across three blocks.
The acquisition of powered flight in birds was preceded in the course of paravian evolution by a complex sequence of anatomical and functional innovations, and many characters associated with avian flight evolved in a terrestrial context. For this reason, a refined and robust phylogeny of paravians is imperative in order to elucidate the sequence of evolutionary stages that resulted in the acquisition of major avian traits.
2019. A new paravian dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of North America supports a late acquisition of avian flight. PeerJ 7:e7247 https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.7247
Agnolin FL, Motta MJ, Egli FB, Lo Coco G, Novas FE. 2019. Paravian phylogeny and the dinosaur-bird transition: an overview. Frontiers in Earth Science 6:252 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2018.00252/full