New research discovers the origin of birds

• Dinosaurs developed characteristics enabling them to fly earlier than previously believed
• New research helps scientists better understand bird origin

Characteristics that allowed dinosaurs to take to the skies arose much earlier than scientists previously believed, new research has revealed – giving fresh insight into the origin of birds.

MicroraptorDr Gavin Thomas, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, and colleagues from the University of Bristol investigated the rates of evolution of the two key characteristics that preceded flight in dinosaurs - body size and forelimb length.

In order to fly, hulking meat-eating dinosaurs had to shrink in size and grow much longer arms to support their feathered wings. Scientists have now discovered this happened earlier than previously believed and dozens of little dinosaurs were actually lightweight with wings and were either gliders or parachutists, spreading their feathered wings, but not flapping them.

"This was at least 20 million years before the first bird, the famous Archaeopteryx, and it shows that flight in birds arose through several evolutionary steps,” said Mark Puttick of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences.

The study applied new numerical methods that calculate the rate of evolution of different characteristics across a whole evolutionary tree, and identify where bursts of fast evolution occurred.

"Up to now you could only have guessed roughly where the major evolutionary transitions occurred," said Dr Thomas of the University of Sheffield. "However the new methods pinpoint the size changes. The small size of birds and their long wings originated long before birds themselves did."

Birds owe their success to their flight, wings and feathers. Until the 1990s, when the first feathered dinosaurs were found in China, birds were thought to have originated rapidly, marking a major transition from dinosaurs.

“Now, we know that Archaeopteryx was only one of a large number of small, flying dinosaurs,” added Mr Puttick. "The origin of birds used to be seen as a rapid transition but actually key characteristics we associate with them arose much earlier."

Additional information

A link to the paper ‘High rates of evolution preceded the origin of birds' by Puttick, can be found at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/evo.12363/abstract

The University of Sheffield
With almost 25,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.
A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.
Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.
In 2011 it was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.
Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Contact

For further information please contact:
Clare Parkin
Media Relations Officer
The University of Sheffield
0114 222 2951
clare.parkin@sheffield.ac.uk