Feathered dinosaurs from China and the evolution of major avian characters


Xing Xu, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100044. China. Email: xu.xing@pa.ivpp.ac.cn


Recent discoveries of feathered dinosaurs from Early Cretaceous deposits in Liaoning, China, have not only lent strongest support for the dinosaurian hypothesis of bird origins, but have also provided much-needed information about the origins of feathers and avian flight. Preliminary analysis of character evolution suggests that the major avian osteological characters were acquired during the early evolution of maniraptoran dinosaurs. The available evidence also suggests that the first feathers with a filamentous morphology probably evolved in basal coelurosaurs and pennaceous feathers (including those with aerodynamic features) were developed in non-avian maniraptorans, indicating that feathers evolved before the origin of birds and their flight. An evolutionary model is proposed here to describe the major stages of feather evolution, a process characterized by a combination of both transformational and innovative modifications. This model is different from some recent developmental models, which suggest that feathers are evolutionary novelties without a homologous relationship to reptilian scales. Although non-avian theropods are traditionally regarded as distinctly cursorial animals, recent discoveries suggest that the closest relatives of birds might be arboreal theropods. Many bird features, such as the furcula and pennaceous feathers, evolved in a terrestrial context, whereas others, such as some pedal modifications, may have evolved in an arboreal context. Consequently, arboreality may have also contributed to the origin of avian flight.