Birds still share many traits with their dinosaur ancestors, making them the best living group to reconstruct certain aspects of non-avian theropod biology. Bipedal, digitigrade locomotion and parasagittal hindlimb movement are some of those inherited traits. Living birds, however, maintain an unusually crouched hindlimb posture and locomotion powered by knee flexion, in contrast to the inferred primitive condition of non-avian theropods: more upright posture and limb movement powered by femur retraction. Such functional differences, which are associated with a gradual, anterior shift of the centre of mass in theropods along the bird line, make the use of extant birds to study non-avian theropod locomotion problematic. Here we show that, by experimentally manipulating the location of the centre of mass in living birds, it is possible to recreate limb posture and kinematics inferred for extinct bipedal dinosaurs. Chickens raised wearing artificial tails, and consequently with more posteriorly located centre of mass, showed a more vertical orientation of the femur during standing and increased femoral displacement during locomotion. Our results support the hypothesis that gradual changes in the location of the centre of mass resulted in more crouched hindlimb postures and a shift from hip-driven to knee-driven limb movements through theropod evolution. This study suggests that, through careful experimental manipulations during the growth phase of ontogeny, extant birds can potentially be used to gain important insights into previously unexplored aspects of bipedal non-avian theropod locomotion.
A small accumulation of bones from the Norian (Upper Triassic) of the Seazza Brook Valley (Carnic Prealps, Northern Italy) was originally (1989) identified as a gastric pellet made of pterosaur skeletal elements. The specimen has been reported in literature as one of the very few cases of gastric ejecta containing pterosaur bones since then. However, the detailed analysis of the bones preserved in the pellet, their study by X-ray microCT, and the comparison with those of basal pterosaurs do not support a referral to the Pterosauria. Comparison with the osteology of a large sample of Middle-Late Triassic reptiles shows some affinity with the protorosaurians, mainly with Langobardisaurus pandolfii that was found in the same formation as the pellet. However, differences with this species suggest that the bones belong to a similar but distinct taxon. The interpretation as a gastric pellet is confirmed.
Birds, dinosaurs, crocodilians, pterosaurs and their close relatives form the highly diverse clade Archosauriformes. Archosauriforms have a deep evolutionary history, originating in the late Permian, prior to the end-Permian mass extinction, and radiating in the Triassic to dominate Mesozoic ecosystems. However, the origins of this clade and its extraordinarily successful body plan remain obscure. Here, we describe an exceptionally preserved fossil skull from the Lower Triassic of Brazil, representing a new species, Teyujagua paradoxa, transitional in morphology between archosauriforms and more primitive reptiles. This skull reveals for the first time the mosaic assembly of key features of the archosauriform skull, including the antorbital and mandibular fenestrae, serrated teeth, and closed lower temporal bar. Phylogenetic analysis recovers Teyujagua as the sister taxon to Archosauriformes, and is congruent with a two-phase model of early archosauriform evolution, in response to two mass extinctions occurring at the end of the Guadalupian and the Permian.
The relationship between dinosaurs and other reptiles is well established, but the sequence of acquisition of dinosaurian features has been obscured by the scarcity of fossils with transitional morphologies. The closest extinct relatives of dinosaurs either have highly derived morphologies or are known from poorly preserved or incomplete material. Here we describe one of the stratigraphically lowest and phylogenetically earliest members of the avian stem lineage (Avemetatarsalia), Teleocrater rhadinus gen. et sp. nov., from the Middle Triassic epoch. The anatomy of T. rhadinus provides key information that unites several enigmatic taxa from across Pangaea into a previously unrecognized clade, Aphanosauria. This clade is the sister taxon of Ornithodira (pterosaurs and birds) and shortens the ghost lineage inferred at the base of Avemetatarsalia. We demonstrate that several anatomical features long thought to characterize Dinosauria and dinosauriforms evolved much earlier, soon after the bird-crocodylian split, and that the earliest avemetatarsalians retained the crocodylian-like ankle morphology and hindlimb proportions of stem archosaurs and early pseudosuchians. Early avemetatarsalians were substantially more species-rich, widely geographically distributed and morphologically diverse than previously recognized. Moreover, several early dinosauromorphs that were previously used as models to understand dinosaur origins may represent specialized forms rather than the ancestral avemetatarsalian morphology.
Knowledge about the types of nests built by dinosaurs can provide insight into the evolution of nesting and reproductive behaviors among archosaurs. However, the low preservation potential of their nesting materials and nesting structures means that most information can only be gleaned indirectly through comparison with extant archosaurs. Two general nest types are recognized among living archosaurs: 1) covered nests, in which eggs are incubated while fully covered by nesting material (as in crocodylians and megapodes), and 2) open nests, in which eggs are exposed in the nest and brooded (as in most birds). Previously, dinosaur nest types had been inferred by estimating the water vapor conductance (i.e., diffusive capacity) of their eggs, based on the premise that high conductance corresponds to covered nests and low conductance to open nests. However, a lack of statistical rigor and inconsistencies in this method render its application problematic and its validity questionable. As an alternative we propose a statistically rigorous approach to infer nest type based on large datasets of eggshell porosity and egg mass compiled for over 120 extant archosaur species and 29 archosaur extinct taxa/ootaxa. The presence of a strong correlation between eggshell porosity and nest type among extant archosaurs indicates that eggshell porosity can be used as a proxy for nest type, and thus discriminant analyses can help predict nest type in extinct taxa. Our results suggest that: 1) covered nests are likely the primitive condition for dinosaurs (and probably archosaurs), and 2) open nests first evolved among non-avian theropods more derived than Lourinhanosaurus and were likely widespread in non-avian maniraptorans, well before the appearance of birds. Although taphonomic evidence suggests that basal open nesters (i.e., oviraptorosaurs and troodontids) were potentially the first dinosaurs to brood their clutches, they still partially buried their eggs in sediment. Open nests with fully exposed eggs only became widespread among Euornithes. A potential co-evolution of open nests and brooding behavior among maniraptorans may have freed theropods from the ground-based restrictions inherent to covered nests and allowed the exploitation of alternate nesting locations. These changes in nesting styles and behaviors thus may have played a role in the evolutionary success of maniraptorans (including birds).
The vertebrate recovery after the end-Permian mass extinction can be approached through the ichnological record, which is much more abundant than body fossils. The late Olenekian (Early Triassic) tetrapod ichnoassemblage of the Catalan Pyrenean Basin is the most complete and diverse of this age from Western Tethys. This extensional basin, composed of several depocenters, was formed in the latest phases of the Variscan orogeny (Pangea breakup) and was infilled by braided and meandering fluvial systems of the red-beds Buntsandstein facies. Abundant and diverse tetrapod ichnites are recorded in these facies, including Prorotodactylus mesaxonichnus isp. nov. (tracks possibly produced by euparkeriids), cf. Rotodactylus, at least two large chirotheriid morphotypes (archosauriform trackmakers), Rhynchosauroides cf. schochardti, two other undetermined Rhynchosauroides forms, an undetermined Morphotype A (archosauromorph trackmakers) and two types of Characichnos isp. (swimming traces, here associated to archosauromorph trackmakers). The Pyrenean ichnoassemblage suggests a relatively homogeneous ichnofaunal composition through the late Early Triassic of Central Pangea, characterized by the presence of Prorotodactylus and Rotodactylus. Small archosauromorph tracks dominate and present a wide distribution through the different fluviatile facies of the Triassic Pyrenean Basin, with large archosaurian footprints being present in a lesser degree. Archosauromorphs radiated and diversified through the Triassic vertebrate recovery, which ultimately lead to the archosaur and dinosaur dominance of the Mesozoic.
Dinosauromorpha includes dinosaurs and other much less diverse dinosaur precursors of Triassic age, such as lagerpetids . Joint occurrences of these taxa with dinosaurs are rare but more common during the latest part of that period (Norian-Rhaetian, 228-201 million years ago [mya]) [2, 3]. In contrast, the new lagerpetid and saurischian dinosaur described here were unearthed from one of the oldest rock units with dinosaur fossils worldwide, the Carnian (237-228 mya) Santa Maria Formation of south Brazil , a record only matched in age by much more fragmentary remains from Argentina . This is the first time nearly complete dinosaur and non-dinosaur dinosauromorph remains are found together in the same excavation, clearly showing that these animals were contemporaries since the first stages of dinosaur evolution. The new lagerpetid preserves the first skull, scapular and forelimb elements, plus associated vertebrae, known for the group, revealing how dinosaurs acquired several of their typical anatomical traits. Furthermore, a novel phylogenetic analysis shows the new dinosaur as the most basal Sauropodomorpha. Its plesiomorphic teeth, strictly adapted to faunivory, provide crucial data to infer the feeding behavior of the first dinosaurs.
Following the end-Permian extinction, terrestrial vertebrate diversity recovered by the Middle Triassic, and that diversity was now dominated by reptiles. However, those reptilian clades, including archosaurs and their closest relatives, are not commonly found until ~30 million years post-extinction in Late Triassic deposits despite time-calibrated phylogenetic analyses predicting an Early Triassic divergence for those clades. One of these groups from the Late Triassic, Phytosauria, is well known from a near-Pangean distribution, and this easily recognized clade bears an elongated rostrum with posteriorly retracted nares and numerous postcranial synapomorphies that are unique compared with all other contemporary reptiles. Here, we recognize the exquisitely preserved, nearly complete skeleton of Diandongosuchus fuyuanensis from the Middle Triassic of China as the oldest and basalmost phytosaur. The Middle Triassic age and lack of the characteristically-elongated rostrum fill a critical morphological and temporal gap in phytosaur evolution, indicating that the characteristic elongated rostrum of phytosaurs appeared subsequent to cranial and postcranial modifications associated with enhanced prey capture, predating that general trend of morphological evolution observed within Crocodyliformes. Additionally, Diandongosuchus supports that the clade was present across Pangea, suggesting early ecosystem exploration for Archosauriformes through nearshore environments and leading to ease of dispersal across the Tethys.
Locomotion in living birds (Neornithes) has two remarkable features: feather-assisted flight, and the use of unusually crouched hindlimbs for bipedal support and movement. When and how these defining functional traits evolved remains controversial. However, the advent of computer modelling approaches and the discoveries of exceptionally preserved key specimens now make it possible to use quantitative data on whole-body morphology to address the biomechanics underlying this issue. Here we use digital body reconstructions to quantify evolutionary trends in locomotor biomechanics (whole-body proportions and centre-of-mass position) across the clade Archosauria. We use three-dimensional digital reconstruction to estimate body shape from skeletal dimensions for 17 archosaurs along the ancestral bird line, including the exceptionally preserved, feathered taxa Microraptor, Archaeopteryx, Pengornis and Yixianornis, which represent key stages in the evolution of the avian body plan. Rather than a discrete transition from more-upright postures in the basal-most birds (Avialae) and their immediate outgroup deinonychosauria, our results support hypotheses of a gradual, stepwise acquisition of more-crouched limb postures across much of theropod evolution, although we find evidence of an accelerated change within the clade Maniraptora (birds and their closest relatives, such as deinonychosaurs). In addition, whereas reduction of the tail is widely accepted to be the primary morphological factor correlated with centre-of-mass position and, hence, evolution of hindlimb posture, we instead find that enlargement of the pectoral limb and several associated trends have a much stronger influence. Intriguingly, our support for the onset of accelerated morpho-functional trends within Maniraptora is closely correlated with the evolution of flight. Because we find that the evolution of enlarged forelimbs is strongly linked, via whole-body centre of mass, to hindlimb function during terrestrial locomotion, we suggest that the evolution of avian flight is linked to anatomical novelties in the pelvic limb as well as the pectoral.
Cursorial ground birds are paragons of bipedal running that span a 500-fold mass range from quail to ostrich. Here we investigate the task-level control priorities of cursorial birds by analysing how they negotiate single-step obstacles that create a conflict between body stability (attenuating deviations in body motion) and consistent leg force-length dynamics (for economy and leg safety). We also test the hypothesis that control priorities shift between body stability and leg safety with increasing body size, reflecting use of active control to overcome size-related challenges. Weight-support demands lead to a shift towards straighter legs and stiffer steady gait with increasing body size, but it remains unknown whether non-steady locomotor priorities diverge with size. We found that all measured species used a consistent obstacle negotiation strategy, involving unsteady body dynamics to minimise fluctuations in leg posture and loading across multiple steps, not directly prioritising body stability. Peak leg forces remained remarkably consistent across obstacle terrain, within 0.35 body weights of level running for obstacle heights from 0.1 to 0.5 times leg length. All species used similar stance leg actuation patterns, involving asymmetric force-length trajectories and posture-dependent actuation to add or remove energy depending on landing conditions. We present a simple stance leg model that explains key features of avian bipedal locomotion, and suggests economy as a key priority on both level and uneven terrain. We suggest that running ground birds target the closely coupled priorities of economy and leg safety as the direct imperatives of control, with adequate stability achieved through appropriately tuned intrinsic dynamics.