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 Origin of birds

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PostSubject: Origin of birds   Wed Oct 19, 2016 10:54 pm

The possibility that dinosaurs were the ancestors of birds was first suggested in 1868 by Thomas Henry Huxley. After the work of Gerhard Heilmann in the early 20th century, the theory of birds as dinosaur descendants was abandoned in favor of the idea of their being descendants of generalized thecodonts, with the key piece of evidence being the supposed lack of clavicles in dinosaurs. However, as later discoveries showed, clavicles (or a single fused wishbone, which derived from separate clavicles) were not actually absent; they had been found as early as 1924 in Oviraptor, but misidentified as an interclavicle. In the 1970s, John Ostrom revived the dinosaur–bird theory, which gained momentum in the coming decades with the advent of cladistic analysis, and a great increase in the discovery of small theropods and early birds. Of particular note have been the fossils of the Yixian Formation, where a variety of theropods and early birds have been found, often with feathers of some type. Birds share over a hundred distinct anatomical features with theropod dinosaurs, which are now generally accepted to have been their closest ancient relatives. They are most closely allied with maniraptoran coelurosaurs. A minority of scientists, most notably Alan Feduccia and Larry Martin, have proposed other evolutionary paths, including revised versions of Heilmann's basal archosaur proposal, or that maniraptoran theropods are the ancestors of birds but themselves are not dinosaurs, only convergent with dinosaurs.

Feathers

Feathers are one of the most recognizable characteristics of modern birds, and a trait that was shared by all other dinosaur groups. Based on the current distribution of fossil evidence, it appears that feathers were an ancestral dinosaurian trait, though one that may have been selectively lost in some species. Direct fossil evidence of feathers or feather-like structures has been discovered in a diverse array of species in many non-avian dinosaur groups, both among saurischians and ornithischians. Simple, branched, feather-like structures are known from heterodontosaurids, primitive neornithischians and theropods, and primitive ceratopsians. Evidence for true, vaned feathers similar to the flight feathers of modern birds has been found only in the theropod subgroup Maniraptora, which includes oviraptorosaurs, troodontids, dromaeosaurids, and birds. Feather-like structures known as pycnofibres have also been found in pterosaurs, suggesting the possibility that feather-like filaments may have been common in the bird lineage and evolved before the appearance of dinosaurs themselves. Research into the genetics of American alligators has also revealed that crocodylian scutes do possess feather-keratins during embryonic development, but these keratins are not expressed by the animals before hatching.

Archaeopteryx was the first fossil found that revealed a potential connection between dinosaurs and birds. It is considered a transitional fossil, in that it displays features of both groups.
Brought to light just two years after Darwin's seminal The Origin of Species, its discovery spurred the nascent debate between proponents of evolutionary biology and creationism. This early bird is so dinosaur-like that, without a clear impression of feathers in the surrounding rock, at least one specimen was mistaken for Compsognathus. Since the 1990s, a number of additional feathered dinosaurs have been found, providing even stronger evidence of the close relationship between dinosaurs and modern birds. Most of these specimens were unearthed in the lagerstätte of the Yixian Formation, Liaoning, northeastern China, which was part of an island continent during the Cretaceous. Though feathers have been found in only a few locations, it is possible that non-avian dinosaurs elsewhere in the world were also feathered. The lack of widespread fossil evidence for feathered non-avian dinosaurs may be because delicate features like skin and feathers are not often preserved by fossilization and thus are absent from the fossil record.

The description of feathered dinosaurs has not been without controversy; perhaps the most vocal critics have been Alan Feduccia and Theagarten Lingham-Soliar, who have proposed that some purported feather-like fossils are the result of the decomposition of collagenous fiber that underlaid the dinosaurs' skin, and that maniraptoran dinosaurs with vaned feathers were not actually dinosaurs, but convergent with dinosaurs. However, their views have for the most part not been accepted by other researchers, to the point that the scientific nature of Feduccia's proposals has been questioned.



Skeleton

Because feathers are often associated with birds, feathered dinosaurs are often touted as the missing link between birds and dinosaurs. However, the multiple skeletal features also shared by the two groups represent another important line of evidence for paleontologists. Areas of the skeleton with important similarities include the neck, pubis, wrist (semi-lunate carpal), arm and pectoral girdle, furcula (wishbone), and breast bone. Comparison of bird and dinosaur skeletons through cladistic analysis strengthens the case for the link

Soft anatomy

Large meat-eating dinosaurs had a complex system of air sacs similar to those found in modern birds, according to a 2005 investigation led by Patrick M. O'Connor. The lungs of theropod dinosaurs (carnivores that walked on two legs and had bird-like feet) likely pumped air into hollow sacs in their skeletons, as is the case in birds. "What was once formally considered unique to birds was present in some form in the ancestors of birds", O'Connor said. In 2008, scientists described Aerosteon riocoloradensis, the skeleton of which supplies the strongest evidence to date of a dinosaur with a bird-like breathing system. CT-scanning of Aerosteon's fossil bones revealed evidence for the existence of air sacs within the animal's body cavity.



Behavioral evidence

Fossils of the troodonts Mei and Sinornithoides demonstrate that some dinosaurs slept with their heads tucked under their arms. This behavior, which may have helped to keep the head warm, is also characteristic of modern birds. Several deinonychosaur and oviraptorosaur specimens have also been found preserved on top of their nests, likely brooding in a bird-like manner. The ratio between egg volume and body mass of adults among these dinosaurs suggest that the eggs were primarily brooded by the male, and that the young were highly precocial, similar to many modern ground-dwelling birds.

Some dinosaurs are known to have used gizzard stones like modern birds. These stones are swallowed by animals to aid digestion and break down food and hard fibers once they enter the stomach. When found in association with fossils, gizzard stones are called gastroliths
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