The origin of birds
The discovery that birds evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs of the Late Jurassic was made possible by recently discovered fossils from China, South America, and other countries, as well as by looking at old museum specimens from new perspectives and with new methods. The hunt for the ancestors of living birds began with a specimen of Archaeopteryx, the first known bird, discovered in the early 1860s. Like birds, it had feathers along its arms and tail, but unlike living birds, it also had teeth and a long bony tail. Furthermore, many of the bones in Archaeopteryx's hands, shoulder girdles, pelvis, and feet were distinct, not fused and reduced as they are in living birds. Based on these characteristics, Archaeopteryx was recognized as an intermediate between birds and reptiles; but which reptiles?
In theropods even more closely related to birds, like the oviraptorosaurs, we find several new types of feathers. One is branched and downy, as pictured below. Others have evolved a central stalk, with unstructured branches coming off it and its base. Still others (like the dromaeosaurids and Archaeopteryx) have a vane-like structure in which the barbs are well-organized and locked together by barbules. This is identical to the feather structure of living birds.
Another line of evidence comes from changes in the digits of the dinosaurs leading to birds. The first theropod dinosaurs had hands with small fifth and fourth digits and a long second digit. As the evogram shows, in the theropod lineage that would eventually lead to birds, the fifth digit (e.g., as seen in Coelophysoids) and then the fourth (e.g., as seen in Allosaurids) were completely lost. The wrist bones underlying the first and second digits consolidated and took on a semicircular form that allowed the hand to rotate sideways against the forearm. This eventually allowed birds' wing joints to move in a way that creates thrust for flight.
Birds after Archaeopteryx continued evolving in some of the same directions as their theropod ancestors. Many of their bones were reduced and fused, which may have helped increase the efficiency of flight. Similarly, the bone walls became even thinner, and the feathers became longer and their vanes asymmetrical, probably also improving flight. The bony tail was reduced to a stump, and a spray of feathers at the tail eventually took on the function of improving stability and maneuverability. The wishbone, which was present in non-bird dinosaurs, became stronger and more elaborate, and the bones of the shoulder girdle evolved to connect to the breastbone, anchoring the flight apparatus of the forelimb. The breastbone itself became larger, and evolved a central keel along the midline of the breast which served to anchor the flight muscles. The arms evolved to be longer than the legs, as the main form of locomotion switched from running to flight, and teeth were lost repeatedly in various lineages of early birds. The ancestor of all living birds lived sometime in the Late Cretaceous, and in the 65 million years since the extinction of the rest of the dinosaurs, this ancestral lineage diversified into the major groups of birds alive today.
View this article online at:
Bird phylogeny adapted from / branched downy feather and symmetrical contour feather from The Tangled Bank, used with permission of the author, Carl Zimmer, and publisher, Roberts & Company, Greenwood Village, Colorado; Photo of Sinosauropteryx by John Hutchinson; Photo of Archaeopteryx lithographica (Berlin specimen) by H. Raab, used under this Creative Commons license;Photo of nesting oviraptorid dinosaur Citipati osmolskae by Dinoguy2, used under this Creative Commons license. Photo of dromaeosaurid feather courtesy of Xing Xu, from:
Understanding Evolution © 2015 by The University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California