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Keywords:

  • diving;
  • flight;
  • fossil;
  • locomotion;
  • morphology;
  • ternary diagram

Abstract

The relative length proportions of the three bony elements of the pelvic (femur, tibiotarsus and tarsometatarsus) and pectoral (humerus, ulna and manus) limbs of the early Cretaceous bird Gansus yumenensis, a well-represented basal ornithuromorph from China, are investigated and compared to those of extant taxa. Ternary plots show that the pectoral limb length proportions of Gansus are most similar to Apodiformes (swifts and hummingbirds), which plot away from all other extant birds. In contrast, the pelvic limb length proportions of Gansus fall within the extant bird cluster and show similarities with the neornithine families Podicipedidae (grebes), Diomedeidae (albatross) and Phalacrocoracidae (cormorants). Although it does have some of the pelvic limb features of grebes and cormorants, the femur of Gansus is more gracile and is thus more consistent with an albatross-like shallow-diving mode of life than a strong foot-propelled diving movement pattern. The position of Gansus in pectoral limb ternary morphospace is largely due to its elongated manus. In contrast to apodiformes, where the humerus and ulna are short and robust, an adaptation, which provides a stiff wing for their demanding fast agile and hovering flight (respectively), the wing-bones of Gansus are slender, indicating a less vigorous flapping flight style. The suite of characters exhibited by Gansus mean it is difficult to completely interpret its likely ecology. Nevertheless, our analyses suggest that it is probable that this bird was both volant and capable of diving to some degree using either foot-propelled or, perhaps, both its wings and its feet for underwater locomotion.