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Keywords:

  • Aves;
  • birds;
  • dinosaurs;
  • evolution;
  • flight;
  • morphology

The origin of birds (Aves) is one of the great evolutionary transitions. Fossils show that many unique morphological features of modern birds, such as feathers, reduction in body size, and the semilunate carpal, long preceded the origin of clade Aves, but some may be unique to Aves, such as relative elongation of the forelimb. We study the evolution of body size and forelimb length across the phylogeny of coelurosaurian theropods and Mesozoic Aves. Using recently developed phylogenetic comparative methods, we find an increase in rates of body size and body size dependent forelimb evolution leading to small body size relative to forelimb length in Paraves, the wider clade comprising Aves and Deinonychosauria. The high evolutionary rates arose primarily from a reduction in body size, as there were no increased rates of forelimb evolution. In line with a recent study, we find evidence that Aves appear to have a unique relationship between body size and forelimb dimensions. Traits associated with Aves evolved before their origin, at high rates, and support the notion that numerous lineages of paravians were experimenting with different modes of flight through the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous.