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Sustained miniaturization and anatomical innovation in the dinosaurian ancestors of birds

Science  01 Aug 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6196, pp. 562-566
DOI: 10.1126/science.1252243

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Turning large dinosaurs into small birds

Most paleontologists agree that birds are descended from dinosaurs. How did such large terrestrial or aquatic animals evolve into small feathered fliers? Lee et al. used two large databases of theropod morphology to explore possible evolutionary patterns that may have driven this dramatic transformation (see the Perspective by Benton). They found no clear pattern of miniaturization across the entire clade of Theropoda. However, several lines of evidence suggested that the lineage leading to birds underwent sustained miniaturization. Within that lineage, body sizes decreased and species evolved faster. They also developed ecological and morphological innovations linked to smaller body sizes.

Science, this issue p. 562; see also p. 508

Abstract

Recent discoveries have highlighted the dramatic evolutionary transformation of massive, ground-dwelling theropod dinosaurs into light, volant birds. Here, we apply Bayesian approaches (originally developed for inferring geographic spread and rates of molecular evolution in viruses) in a different context: to infer size changes and rates of anatomical innovation (across up to 1549 skeletal characters) in fossils. These approaches identify two drivers underlying the dinosaur-bird transition. The theropod lineage directly ancestral to birds undergoes sustained miniaturization across 50 million years and at least 12 consecutive branches (internodes) and evolves skeletal adaptations four times faster than other dinosaurs. The distinct, prolonged phase of miniaturization along the bird stem would have facilitated the evolution of many novelties associated with small body size, such as reorientation of body mass, increased aerial ability, and paedomorphic skulls with reduced snouts but enlarged eyes and brains.

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