The evolution of birds from theropod dinosaurs was one of the great evolutionary transitions in the history of life. The macroevolutionary tempo and mode of this transition is poorly studied, which is surprising because it may offer key insight into major questions in evolutionary biology, particularly whether the origins of evolutionary novelties or new ecological opportunities are associated with unusually elevated "bursts" of evolution. We present a comprehensive phylogeny placing birds within the context of theropod evolution and quantify rates of morphological evolution and changes in overall morphological disparity across the dinosaur-bird transition. Birds evolved significantly faster than other theropods, but they are indistinguishable from their closest relatives in morphospace. Our results demonstrate that the rise of birds was a complex process: birds are a continuum of millions of years of theropod evolution, and there was no great jump between nonbirds and birds in morphospace, but once the avian body plan was gradually assembled, birds experienced an early burst of rapid anatomical evolution. This suggests that high rates of morphological evolution after the development of a novel body plan may be a common feature of macroevolution, as first hypothesized by G.G. Simpson more than 60 years ago.
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