Evolution and classification
The first classification of birds was developed by Francis Willughby and John Ray in their 1676 volume Ornithologiae.
Carl Linnaeus modified that work in 1758 to devise the taxonomic classification system currently in use. Birds are categorised as the biological class Aves in Linnaean taxonomy. Phylogenetic taxonomy places Aves in the dinosaur clade Theropoda.
Aves and a sister group, the order Crocodilia, contain the only living representatives of the reptile clade Archosauria. During the late 1990s, Aves was most commonly defined phylogenetically as all descendants of the most recent common ancestor of modern birds and Archaeopteryx lithographica. However, an earlier definition proposed by Jacques Gauthier gained wide currency in the 21st century, and is used by many scientists including adherents of the Phylocode system. Gauthier defined Aves to include only the crown group of the set of modern birds. This was done by excluding most groups known only from fossils, and assigning them, instead, to the Avialae, in part to avoid the uncertainties about the placement of Archaeopteryx in relation to animals traditionally thought of as theropod dinosaurs.
Gauthier identified four different definitions for the same biological name "Aves", which is a problem. Gauthier proposed to reserve the term Aves only for the crown group consisting of the last common ancestor of all living birds and all of its descendants, which corresponds to meaning number 4 below. He assigned other names to the other groups.
|The birds' phylogenetic relationships to major living reptile groups.
- Aves can mean all archosaurs closer to birds than to crocodiles (alternately Avemetatarsalia)
- Aves can mean those advanced archosaurs with feathers (alternately Avifilopluma)
- Aves can mean those feathered dinosaurs that fly (alternately Avialae)
- Aves can mean the last common ancestor of all the currently living birds and all of its descendants (a "crown group", in this sense synonymous with Neornithes)
Under the fourth definition Archaeopteryx is an avialan, and not a member of Aves. Gauthier's proposals have been adopted by many researchers in the field of palaeontology and bird evolution, though the exact definitions applied have been inconsistent. Avialae, initially proposed to replace the traditional fossil content of Aves, is often used synonymously with the vernacular term "bird" by these researchers.
Most researchers define Avialae as branch-based clade, though definitions vary. Many authors have used a definition similar to "all theropods closer to birds than to Deinonychus." Avialae is also occasionally defined as an apomorphy-based clade (that is, one based on physical characteristics). Jacques Gauthier, who named Avialae in 1986, re-defined it in 2001 as all dinosaurs that possessed feathered wings used in flapping flight, and the birds that descended from them.
Dinosaurs and the origin of birds
|Cladogram following the results of a phylogenetic study by Cau et al., 2015.
Based on fossil and biological evidence, most scientists accept that birds are a specialised subgroup of theropod dinosaurs, and more specifically, they are members of Maniraptora, a group of theropods which includes dromaeosaurs and oviraptorids, among others. As scientists have discovered more theropods closely related to birds, the previously clear distinction between non-birds and birds has become blurred. Recent discoveries in the Liaoning Province of northeast China, which demonstrate many small theropod feathered dinosaurs, contribute to this ambiguity.
The consensus view in contemporary palaeontology is that the flying theropods, or avialans, are the closest relatives of the deinonychosaurs, which include dromaeosaurids and troodontids. Together, these form a group called Paraves. Some basal members of this group, such as Microraptor, have features which may have enabled them to glide or fly. The most basal deinonychosaurs were very small. This evidence raises the possibility that the ancestor of all paravians may have been arboreal, have been able to glide, or both. Unlike Archaeopteryx and the non-avialan feathered dinosaurs, who primarily ate meat, recent studies suggest that the first avialans were omnivores.
The Late Jurassic Archaeopteryx is well known as one of the first transitional fossils to be found, and it provided support for the theory of evolution in the late 19th century. Archaeopteryx was the first fossil to display both clearly traditional reptilian characteristics: teeth, clawed fingers, and a long, lizard-like tail, as well as wings with flight feathers similar to those of modern birds. It is not considered a direct ancestor of birds, though it is possibly closely related to the true ancestor.
, a Cretaceous bird from China that lived 125 million years ago, is the oldest known bird to have a beak.
|Cladogram following the results of a phylogenetic study by Cau et al., 2015.
The earliest known avialan fossils come from the Tiaojishan Formation of China, which has been dated to the late Jurassic period (Oxfordian stage), about 160 million years ago. The avialan species from this time period include Anchiornis huxleyi, Xiaotingia zhengi, and Aurornis xui.
The well-known early avialan, Archaeopteryx, dates from slightly later Jurassic rocks (about 155 million years old) from Germany. Many of these early avialans shared unusual anatomical features that may be ancestral to modern birds, but were later lost during bird evolution. These features include enlarged claws on the second toe which may have been held clear of the ground in life, and long feathers or "hind wings" covering the hind limbs and feet, which may have been used in aerial maneuvering.
Avialans diversified into a wide variety of forms during the Cretaceous Period. Many groups retained primitive characteristics, such as clawed wings and teeth, though the latter were lost independently in a number of avialan groups, including modern birds (Aves). While the earliest forms, such as Archaeopteryx and Jeholornis, retained the long bony tails of their ancestors, the tails of more advanced avialans were shortened with the advent of the pygostyle bone in the group Pygostylia. In the late Cretaceous, about 100 million years ago, the ancestors of all modern birds evolved a more open pelvis, allowing them to lay larger eggs compared to body size.
Around 95 million years ago, they evolved a better sense of smell.
Early diversity of bird ancestors
, which lived 93 million years ago, was the first known prehistoric bird relative preserved with teeth.
|Mesozoic bird phylogeny simplified after Wang et al., 2015's phylogenetic analysis.
The first large, diverse lineage of short-tailed avialans to evolve were the enantiornithes, or "opposite birds", so named because the construction of their shoulder bones was in reverse to that of modern birds. Enantiornithes occupied a wide array of ecological niches, from sand-probing shorebirds and fish-eaters to tree-dwelling forms and seed-eaters. While they were the dominant group of avialans during the Cretaceous period, enantiornithes became extinct along with many other dinosaur groups at the end of the Mesozoic era.
Many species of the second major avialan lineage to diversify, the Euornithes (meaning "true birds", because they include the ancestors of modern birds), were semi-aquatic and specialised in eating fish and other small aquatic organisms. Unlike the enantiornithes, which dominated land-based and arboreal habitats, most early euornithes lacked perching adaptations and seem to have included shorebird-like species, waders, and swimming and diving species.
The latter included the superficially gull-like Ichthyornis and the Hesperornithiformes, which became so well adapted to hunting fish in marine environments that they lost the ability to fly and became primarily aquatic. The early euornithes also saw the development of many traits associated with modern birds, like strongly keeled breastbones, toothless, beaked portions of their jaws (though most non-avian euornithes retained teeth in other parts of the jaws). Euornithes also included the first avialans to develop true pygostyle and a fully mobile fan of tail feathers, which may have replaced the "hind wing" as the primary mode of aerial maneuverability and braking in flight.
A study on mosaic evolution in the avian skull found that the last common ancestor of all neornithines might have had a beak similar to that of the modern hook-billed vanga and a skull similar to that of the Eurasian golden oriole. As both species are small aerial and canopy foraging omnivores, a similar ecological niche was inferred for this hypothetical ancestor.
Diversification of modern birds
All modern birds lie within the crown group Aves (alternately Neornithes), which has two subdivisions: the Palaeognathae, which includes the flightless ratites (such as the ostriches) and the weak-flying tinamous, and the extremely diverse Neognathae, containing all other birds. These two subdivisions are often given the rank of superorder, although Livezey and Zusi assigned them "cohort" rank. Depending on the taxonomic viewpoint, the number of known living bird species varies anywhere from 9,800 to 10,050.
The discovery of Vegavis, a late Cretaceous member of the Anatidae, proved that the diversification of modern birds started before the Cenozoic. The affinities of an earlier fossil, the possible galliform Austinornis lentus, dated to about 85 million years ago, are still too controversial to provide a fossil evidence of modern bird diversification.
Most studies agree on a Cretaceous age for the most recent common ancestor of modern birds but estimates range from the Middle Cretaceous to the latest Late Cretaceous. Similarly, there is no agreement on whether most of the early diversification of modern birds occurred before or after the Cretaceous–Palaeogene extinction event. This disagreement is in part caused by a divergence in the evidence; most molecular dating studies suggests a Cretaceous radiation, while fossil evidence points to a Cenozoic radiation (the so-called 'rocks' versus 'clocks' controversy). Previous attempts to reconcile molecular and fossil evidence have proved controversial, but more recent estimates, using a more comprehensive sample of fossils and a new way of calibrating molecular clocks, showed that while modern birds originated early in the Late Cretaceous, a pulse of diversification in all major groups occurred around the Cretaceous–Palaeogene extinction event.
Classification of bird orders
Cladogram of modern bird relationships based on Prum, R.O. et al. (2015) with some clade names after Yuri, T. et al. (2013).
The classification of birds is a contentious issue. Sibley and Ahlquist's Phylogeny and Classification of Birds (1990) is a landmark work on the classification of birds, although it is frequently debated and constantly revised. Most evidence seems to suggest the assignment of orders is accurate, but scientists disagree about the relationships between the orders themselves; evidence from modern bird anatomy, fossils and DNA have all been brought to bear on the problem, but no strong consensus has emerged. More recently, new fossil and molecular evidence is providing an increasingly clear picture of the evolution of modern bird orders.