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Keywords:

  • Allometry;
  • aves;
  • constraint;
  • macroevolution;
  • theropoda

The origin of birds and powered flight is a classic major evolutionary transition. Research on their origin often focuses on the evolution of the wing with trends of forelimb elongation traced back through many nonavian maniraptoran dinosaurs. We present evidence that the relative forelimb elongation within avian antecedents is primarily due to allometry and is instead driven by a reduction in body size. Once body size is factored out, there is no trend of increasing forelimb length until the origin of birds. We report that early birds and nonavian theropods have significantly different scaling relationships within the forelimb and hindlimb skeleton. Ancestral forelimb and hindlimb allometric scaling to body size is rapidly decoupled at the origin of birds, when wings significantly elongate, by evolving a positive allometric relationship with body size from an ancestrally negative allometric pattern and legs significantly shorten by keeping a similar, near isometric relationship but with a reduced intercept. These results have implications for the evolution of powered flight and early diversification of birds. They suggest that their limb lengths first had to be dissociated from general body size scaling before expanding to the wide range of fore and hindlimb shapes and sizes present in today's birds.