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, 433 (7023), 305-8

Definitive Fossil Evidence for the Extant Avian Radiation in the Cretaceous

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Definitive Fossil Evidence for the Extant Avian Radiation in the Cretaceous

Julia A Clarke et al. Nature.

Abstract

Long-standing controversy surrounds the question of whether living bird lineages emerged after non-avian dinosaur extinction at the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) boundary or whether these lineages coexisted with other dinosaurs and passed through this mass extinction event. Inferences from biogeography and molecular sequence data (but see ref. 10) project major avian lineages deep into the Cretaceous period, implying their 'mass survival' at the K/T boundary. By contrast, it has been argued that the fossil record refutes this hypothesis, placing a 'big bang' of avian radiation only after the end of the Cretaceous. However, other fossil data--fragmentary bones referred to extant bird lineages--have been considered inconclusive. These data have never been subjected to phylogenetic analysis. Here we identify a rare, partial skeleton from the Maastrichtian of Antarctica as the first Cretaceous fossil definitively placed within the extant bird radiation. Several phylogenetic analyses supported by independent histological data indicate that a new species, Vegavis iaai, is a part of Anseriformes (waterfowl) and is most closely related to Anatidae, which includes true ducks. A minimum of five divergences within Aves before the K/T boundary are inferred from the placement of Vegavis; at least duck, chicken and ratite bird relatives were coextant with non-avian dinosaurs.

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