• birds;
  • flight;
  • morphological evolution;
  • Ornithurae


In studies of the evolution of avian flight there has been a singular preoccupation with unravelling its origin. By contrast, the complex changes in morphology that occurred between the earliest form of avian flapping flight and the emergence of the flight capabilities of extant birds remain comparatively little explored. Any such work has been limited by a comparative paucity of fossils illuminating bird evolution near the origin of the clade of extant (i.e. ‘modern’) birds (Aves). Here we recognize three species from the Early Cretaceous of China as comprising a new lineage of basal ornithurine birds. Ornithurae is a clade that includes, approximately, comparatively close relatives of crown clade Aves (extant birds) and that crown clade. The morphology of the best-preserved specimen from this newly recognized Asian diversity, the holotype specimen of Yixianornis grabaui Zhou and Zhang 2001, complete with finely preserved wing and tail feather impressions, is used to illustrate the new insights offered by recognition of this lineage. Hypotheses of avian morphological evolution and specifically proposed patterns of change in different avian locomotor modules after the origin of flight are impacted by recognition of the new lineage. The complete articulated holotype specimen of Yixianornis grabaui, from the Early Cretaceous Jiufotang Formation of Liaoning Province, in north-eastern China, arguably the best-preserved basal ornithurine specimen yet discovered, provides the earliest evidence consistent with the presence of extant avian tail feather fanning.