The unexpected bipedal/marine connection

Several times in the evolution of reptiles bipedal forms have phylogenetically preceded marine forms. Yes, marine forms. It’s bizarre, but true.

Here’s the list, more or less. Did I miss any?

Huehuecuetzpalli (bipedal capable) > Dinocephalosaurus (marine)
Huehuecuetzpalli, a small speedy lizard with short fore limbs and long hind limbs evolves to become Dinocephalosaurus, a giant long-necked sit-and-wait predator via Macrocnemus, something in between.

Langobardisaurus (biped) > Tanystropheus (marine)
Langobardisaurus, a small long-necked strider evolves to become Tanystropheus, a giant stand-and-wait marine predator.

Eudibamus (biped) > Claudiosaurus (marine)
Eudibamus, a small lizard-like diapsid with a long neck and long hind limbs evolves to become Claudiosaurus, a long-necked marine undulating marine predator of tiny prey. Thereafter descendants evolve to become ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs.

Varanus (biped while fighting) > Mosasaurus (marine)
Okay, so only certain varanids only go bipedal when fighting, even so mosasaurs are giant and marine.

Scleromochlus & Terrestrisuchus (bipeds) > Metriorhynchus (marine)
Scerlomochlus, and Terrestrisuchus, tiny long-legged basal crocs evolve to become large short-paddled marine crocs, like

Storks (biped) > Penguins (marine)
Flying bipeds evolve to fly underwater.

Australopithecines (biped) > Humans (Homo, marine capable)
(grassland roamers evolve to become able to swim)

Evidently it all comes down to 
Conscious control of breathing — if you want to become a marine animal you have to hold your breath.

Not sure what the bipedal connection is with reptiles, because lots of marine reptiles never had a bipedal phase. I just wanted to throw the idea out there.

More on Humans:
Anthropologist Elaine Morgan on TED talks about the origin of bipedal humans from aquatic apes here. Step-by-step: Apes all walk bipedally when they cross streams. For insulation humans have fat migration to a subdermal position, that’s why obesity is possible for humans, not for apes. The nostrils open ventrally, keeping water out by air pressue in humans. Ape nostrils don’t keep out water, except for the proboscis monkey (the most aquatic of primates).  Ability to speak comes by way of the conscious control of their breath, according to Morgan.

Late Cretaceous pterosaurs, penguins, storks and falcons

A 2006 paper (Slack et al.) on earliest Paleocene penguin (Waimanu manneringi) fossils finds sheds light on early bird diversification and possible decline of the pterosaurs (reduction to only large taxa).

Penguins and storks
According to Slack et al., penguins and storks nest together closer than loons and albatross + petrel. And they must have diversified at 67.1 mya, prior to the K/T extinction.

Falcons and pterosaurs
An earlier diversification, 77.2 mya marked the splitting of the falconiformes from the sea birds (including the above listed taxa). That means falcons or protofalcons were soaring over Late Cretaceous skies. Noting trends for ever larger pterosaurs and the absence  smaller pterosaurs in the Late Cretaceous, the authors report, “Kim et al. (2003) offer the interpretation that pterosaurs might have fed on small birds—equally plausible to us, however, is that the raptors (Falconiformes) could have preyed on young pterosaurs.”

Never heard that one before. Of course, if a predator eats all of its prey, the predator also dies. So, improbable, but interesting.

Kim CB, Huh M, Cheong CS, Lockley MG and Chang HW 2003. Age of the pterosaur and web-footed bird tracks associated with dinosaur footprints from South Korea. Island Arc 12:125–131.
Slack KE, Jones CM, Ando T Harrison GL, Fordyce RE Arnason U and  Penny D 2006. Early Penguin Fossils, Plus Mitochondrial Genomes, Calibrate Avian Evolution. Mol. Biol. Evol. 23(6):1144–1155.

How Birds Got Their Wings

A recent article, “How Birds Got Their Wings,” also here, here and here describe work by Dececchi and Larsson (2013) that noted scaling of forelimb vs hind limb took a big turn with Archaeopteryx and kin (Fig. 1). They note, as forelimbs lengthened, they became long enough to serve as an airfoil, allowing for the evolution of powered flight. Shorter legs would have aided in reducing drag during flight — the reason modern birds tuck their legs as they fly — and also in perching and moving about on small branches in trees.

That’s all well and good, but its not the key. It’s one step following the key.
The key is flapping. That’s a behavior that definitely leads to flight. Having long forelimbs vs. hind limbs is also found in primates, chalicotheres and sloths. They don’t fly. Even the “flying lemur” Cynocephalus had long arms. All it can do is glide because it doesn’t flap.

Figure 2. Cosesaurus running and flapping - slow.

Figure 1. Click to animate. Cosesaurus running and flapping – slow.

The key to flapping is a locked down coracoid.
As we learned earlier with Cosesaurus (Fig. 1), a locked down coracoid is one thing pterosaurs and birds share. Cosesaurus had fibers trailing its forelimbs (Ellenberger 1993, Peters 2011) but its forelimbs were too short to fly. Nevertheless, it could flap because it had a locked down coracoid. And that was a secondary sexual trait (behavior) that led to more of the same in three distinct directions in Sharovipteryx, Longisquama and basal pterosaurs.

Taxa in the lineage of birds.

Figure 2. Taxa in the lineage of birds. From top to bottom: Tawa, Juravenator, Sinocalliopteryx, Archaeopteryx, Cathayornis, Sinornithes plus enlarged skulls. Note the coracoid becomes taller and fixed in Archaeopteryx.

Other dinosaurs
with long forelimbs and a tall, narrow, locked down coracoid include oviraptorids, dromaeosaurids, alvarezaurs and birds all taxa that phylogenetically follow Archaeopteryx.

And bats?
They have a locked down tall clavicle that serves the same function. We don’t know when they started flapping because the closest known fossils of prebats are all skull material only.

Dececchi TA and,  Larsson HCE 2013. Body and Limb Size Dissociation at the Origin of Birds: Uncoupling Allometric Constraints Across a Macroevolutionary Transition. Evolution 67(9):2741 DOI:10.1111/evo.12150

What?? No feathers on velociraptors?

Figure 1. Inside cover illustration spread for "Raptors, the Nastiest Dinosaurs" by Don Lessem, illustrated by David Peters. Don asked for a "no feathers dinosaur" so that's what he got. Don't blame the artist. I tried to persuade. Utahraptor is the big dromaeosaur here.

Figure 1. Inside cover illustration spread for “Raptors, the Nastiest Dinosaurs” by Don Lessem (1996), illustrated by yours truly, David Peters. Don asked for a “no feathers dinosaur” so that’s what he got. Don’t blame the artist. I tried to dissuade. Utahraptor is the big dromaeosaur here.

This post was inspired
by a blog and Flickerstream I ran across here and here that bemoaned the fact that my 1996 dromaeosaurids / velociraptors (Fig. 1) in “Raptors – The Nastiest Dinosaurs” did not have feathers, but did have propatagia.

Guys, I tried to add feathers, as I had done several years earlier (1989) to my own velociraptors in Gallery of Dinosaurs (Fig. 2). However, author Don Lessem insisted that no feathers appear in his book. I tried to dissuade, but was vetoed. After all, he is the author. And that was then. I’m sure Dino Don has come around to new thinking since then.

See how difficult it is to promote a new idea supported by data? Even an expert like Don Lessem balked back in 1995-6.

Figure 2. Feathered Deinonychus from A Gallery of Dinosaurs by David Peters.

Figure 2. Feathered Deinonychus from A Gallery of Dinosaurs by yours truly, David Peters. (1989). Click to enlarge.

So, there is a backstory,
as there is with other controversial aspects of my work. At present the backstory and trashed ideas are not as important as the current work. Science marches on and new data keeps coming in. So let’s stay with the current wave. If you see any other problems with my  tracings or identifications, please let me know of those issues.

These are kids books, not academic journals!
“A Gallery of Dinosaurs” is online here.

Jason Brougham Deinonychus skeleton model

This is excellent!

Figure 1. Deinonychus skeleton model by Jason Brougham. Click to learn more.

Figure 1. Deinonychus skeleton model by Jason Brougham. Click to learn more.

And if you haven’t become acquainted with artist/scientist, Jason Brougham, I hope you do so now. Incredible and accurate detail, dynamic pose and very birdy.

Lateral view of Deinonychus by Jason Brougham.

Figure 2. Lateral view of Deinonychus by Jason Brougham.

It’s not very often that a skeleton seems this alive.

See more at

Aurornis xui – A New Bird-like Dinosaur with Feathers

“A birdlike fossil that dates to roughly 155 million years ago is ruffling the feathers of some paleontologists. At issue is whether the fossil is a dinosaur, an early bird or something in between,” Rachel Ehrenberg of Science News wrote. “This new animal is the most primitive bird in the world,” says paleontologist Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

And further down, Ehrenberg writes, “Not everyone agrees with Godefroit’s interpretation. ‘This is very birdlike, but it is not yet a bird,’ says paleontologist Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.”

The name of the new dinosaur with feathers is Aurornis xui. Twice as tall as Archaeopteryx (Fig. 1) and three times as long, Aurornis preceded Archaeopteryx by 10 million years and lived in China.  Lacking large feathers, Aurornis did not fly, but would have been a speedy runner. Aurornis phylogenetically precedes Archaeopteryx and all other birds. So is it a bird? Or pre-bird?

Who is right? 
Here is the traced specimen. The fossil appears here online. The coracoids are hard to see as they overlap one another in situ, but they appear to be strut-like. If so, Aurornis flapped, not that that matters…but if Archaeopteryx was a poor flyer, than Aurornis didn’t have a chance.

Aurornis xui in situ and reconstructed alongside Archaeopteryx to the same scale. Click to enlarge.

Figure 1. Aurornis xui in situ and reconstructed alongside Archaeopteryx to the same scale. Click to enlarge. Aurornis is a larger animal, but with a skull and pelvis not much larger than in Archaeopteryx.

Bird Ancestor? 
Earlier we looked at taxa that phylogenetically preceded Archaeopteryx (all larger) and several taxa that phylogenetically succeeded Archaeopteryx (all smaller, but later forms grew larger). Aurornis was too large to fly. It did not have flight feathers or tail tip feathers. Archaeopteryx was able to fly feebly with large flight feathers and tail tip feathers on a smaller body.

Everyone wants to find the first, the biggest, the best, etc. 
It comes down to how paleontologists and ornithologists define what a bird is. According to Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County quoted in LiveScience“Traditionally, we have defined birds as things like Archaeopteryx and closer to things like modern birds. If you stick to the definition, this thing is not the earliest known bird.” Even so, it is a very interesting animal that “still helps us understand better the origin of birds,” Chiappe said.

Aurornis is a wonderful new taxon that gives greater insight into the origin of birds, but it is not one by definition.

Godefroit P, Cau A, Hu D-Y, Escuillié  F, Wu W-H and Dyke G 2013. A Jurassic avialan dinosaur from China resolves the early phylogenetic history of birds. Nature .doi:10.1038/nature12168.


Hummingbird and Swift Ancestor Reconstructed

Eocypselus rowei (Figs. 1-3, Eocene, 50 mya) has been found to be close to the common ancestor of both hovering hummingbirds and speedy swifts  (Ksepka et al. 2013). The modern taxa have evolved distinct wing shapes for their distinct flight styles. The new fossil with soft tissue feather impressions demonstrates the more generalized (plesiomorphic) wing shape that preceded that divergence.

Plate for Eocyupselus with soft tissue preservation.

Figure 1. Plate for Eocypselus rowei with soft tissue preservation.

Both swifts and hummingbirds have smaller feet and legs than those of Eocypselus rowei. Because of this, along with their extraordinary flying abillities, swifts and hummingbirds forego walking for the most part. In contrast, Eocypselus rowei appears to have been a good walker with longer metatarsals and legs.

Eocipselus counterplate distorted to match plate. Evidently the plate and counter plate were not taken from the exact same viewpoint.

Figure 2. Eocipselus rowei counterplate distorted to match plate. Evidently the plate and counter plate were not taken from the exact same viewpoint.

Eocypselus rowei had a stout humerus (Fig. 6) but not so stout as either a swift or hummingbird, both of which were relatively 2/3 the length and 1/3 deeper (Fig. 6). Likewise in the swift and hummingbird the radius/ulna is about 2/3 of the length in Eocypselus rowei. The manus of the swift and hummingbird is much longer than the combined length of the ulna and humerus (Fig. 4), but not so in the more generalized and primitive Eocypselus rowei.

Figure 3. Tracing of Eocypselus, identifying bones by color.

Figure 3. Tracing of Eocypselus, identifying bones by color. DGS used here to trace elements.

Lead author Daniel Ksepka reported, “This fossil bird represents the closest we’ve gotten to the point where swifts and hummingbirds went their separate ways.”

Figure 4. Reconstruction of Eocypselus. The pelvis is preserved in ventral view, so is difficult to ascertain in lateral view, but it probably looked very much like that of most other similar birds.

Figure 4. Reconstruction of Eocypselus rowei. The pelvis is preserved in ventral view, so is difficult to ascertain in lateral view, but it probably looked very much like that of most other similar birds. Also shown is Apus (illustration from Eyton 1867), the modern common swift, in which the hand bones exceed the humerus + ulna in length.

Eocypselus vincenti (Harrison 1984, Mayr 2010, Fig. 5) is a congeneric specimen from the Early Eocene of Europe.

Eocypselus vincenti, a related species from Europe. Apparently the manus is larger here than in E. rowei.

Figure 5. Eocypselus vincenti, a related species from Europe from Mayr (2010). Apparently the manus is slightly larger and the tibia is slightly smaller here than in E. rowei. Note the lack of scapulocoracoid fusion here. 

Mayr (2010) also found Eocypselus vincenti to be related to swifts and hummingbirds. Harrison (1984) originally named Eocypelus. Others have also found and described this genus.

The evolution of the humerus in Eocypselus, swifts and hummingbirds.

Figure 6. The evolution of the humerus in Eocypselus, swifts and hummingbirds, rearranged and colored from Mayr 2003. In both swifts and hummingbirds the humerus becomes increasingly robust and in both a new process develops (1, 3) that originates in Eocypselus.

As always, I encourage readers to see specimens, make observations and come to your own conclusions. Test. Test. And test again.

Evidence and support in the form of nexus, pdf and jpeg files will be sent to all who request additional data.

Eyton TC 1867. Osteologia avium; Or, a Sketch of the Osteology of Birds / II. : Wellington, London.
Harrison CJO 1984. A revision of the fossil swifts (Vertebrata, Aves, suborder Apodi), with descriptions of three new genera and two new species. Mededelingen van de Werkgroep voor Tertiaire en Kwartaire Geologie 21:157–177.
Ksepka DT, Clarke JA, Nesbitt SJ, Kulp FB and Grande L. 2013. Fossil evidence of wing shape in a stem relative of swifts and hummingbirds (Aves, Pan-Apodiformes). Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280 (1761): 20130580. doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.0580. Supplementary materials here.
Mayr G 2003. Phylogeny of early Tertiary swifts and hummingbirds (Aves: Apodiformes). The Auk 120(1):145–151, 2003. online
Mayr G 2009. Paleogene Fossil Birds (online) Springer.
Mayr G 2010. Reappraisal of Eocypselus—a stem group apodiform from the early Eocene of Northern Europe. Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments 90(4): 395-403.

Discover Magazine online

Fossil hummingbirds online pdf