Origin of Birds

The origin of birds has historically been a contentious topic within evolutionary biology. However, most researchers now support the view that birds are a group of theropod dinosaurs that evolved during the Mesozoic Era.

A close relationship between birds and dinosaurs was first proposed in the nineteenth century after the discovery of the primitive bird Archaeopteryx in Germany. Birds share many unique skeletal features with dinosaurs. Moreover, fossils of more than twenty species of dinosaur have been collected which preserve feathers. There are even very small dinosaurs, such as Microraptor and Anchiornis, which have long, vaned, arm and leg feathers forming wings. The Jurassic basal avialan Pedopenna also shows these long foot feathers. Witmer (2009) has concluded that this evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that avian evolution went through a four-winged stage.

Fossil evidence also demonstrates that birds and dinosaurs shared features such as hollow, pneumatized bones, gastroliths in the digestive system, nest-building and brooding behaviors. The ground-breaking discovery of fossilized Tyrannosaurus rex soft tissue allowed a molecular comparison of cellular anatomy and protein sequencing of collagen tissue, both of which demonstrated that T. rex and birds are more closely related to each other than either is to the alligator. A second molecular study robustly supported the relationship of birds to dinosaurs, though it did not place birds within Theropoda, as expected. This study utilized eight additional collagen sequences extracted from a femur of Brachylophosaurus canadensis, a hadrosaur. A study comparing juvenile and adult archosaur skulls concluded that birds derived from dinosaurs by neoteny.

Only a few scientists still debate the dinosaurian origin of birds, suggesting descent from other types of archosaurian reptiles. Among the consensus that supports dinosaurian ancestry, the exact sequence of evolutionary events that gave rise to the early birds within maniraptoran theropods is a hot topic. The origin of bird flight is a separate but related question for which there are also several proposed answers.

Read more about Origin Of Birds:  Phylogeny

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