Jurassic birds took off from the ground – SVP abstracts 2016

Everyone knows:
Ground up hypothesis – 

implies and includes flapping, always has. Birds flap, always have, at least since the elongation and locking down of the coracoid in ancestral troodontids.

Trees down hypothesis –
has always implied gliding. Gliders don’t flap, never have.

baby birds dropping out of trees always flap. It’s what they do. But that fact is often ignored in bird origin videos.

And, as everyone knows by now…
young birds with pre-violant wings flap them like crazy when climbing bipedally — even vertical tree trunks… also something several animated bird origin videos ignore, perhaps because of one glaring opposite extant example: the young wet hoatzin that struggles to climb with all four limbs.

With that preamble…Habib et al. 2016 provide us
a hypothesis on the origin of bird flight that appears to ignore trees and experimental work with pre-volant birds and goes straight to take-off from flat ground. Is that okay?

From the abstract:
“Many small non-avian theropods possessed well-developed feathered forelimbs, but questions remain of when powered flight evolved and whether it occured more than once within Maniraptora. Here, using a first principles modeling approach, we explore these questions and attempt to determine in which taxa takeoff and powered flight was possible. Takeoff is here defined as a combination of both the hindlimb driving the ballistic launch phase, and the wing-based propulsion (climb out). [1]

“Microraptor, Rahonavis, [2] and all avian specimens generated sufficient velocity during leaping or running for takeoff. We re-ran our analysis factoring in life history changes that can alter the flight capability in extant avians, such as egg retention and molting, to examine how these would influence take off capacity. Of the two, molting shows the most significant effects.

“When these results are coupled with work detailing the lack of arboreal features among non-avian maniraptorans and early birds, they support the hypothesis that birds achieved flight without a gliding intermediary step, something perhaps unique among volant tetrapod clades.” [3] [4] [5]

Figure 2. Cosesaurus running and flapping - slow.

Figure 1. Cosesaurus running and flapping – slow.


  1. Interesting that Habib et al. ignore the presence of trees, which are key to Dial’s hypothesis (updated in Heers et al. 2016)  and opts to go straight from ground to air. That kind of ignores key work, doesn’t it? You might recall that Dr. Habib became famous as the author of the infamous but popular forelimb quad launch hypothesis for pterosaurs.
  2.  Microraptor and Rahonavis are NOT in the lineage of birds in the LRT, but both show how widespread long feathered wings were in Theropoda. The former has elongate coracoids by convergence. The latter does not preserve coracoids, fingers or feathers, but does have the long forearm that might imply bird-like proportions for missing bones… or not.
  3. Apparently Habib et al. assume that pterosaurs and bats originated as gliders when present largely ignored evidence indicates exactly the opposite. Cosesaurus (Fig. 1) was a pterosaur precursor with elongate coracoids, unable to fly, but able to flap. Bats rarely glide, so it is unlikely that they did so primitively. Lacking coracoids, bats employ elongate clavicles to anchor flight muscles.
  4. Okay, so remember the preamble (above) about gliding and trees. When Habib et al. bring up ‘a gliding intermediary step‘, they are implying the presence of trees (high places) in competing and validated-by-experiment hypotheses for the origin of bird flight  — which they are ignoring. They also ignore the fact that baby birds don’t glide when they fall out of trees. They flap like their lives depend upon it. I find those omissions odd, but its not the first time pertinent work has been ignored in paleontology.
  5. In the LRT Xiaotingia (Fig. 2) is the most primitive bird-like troodontid to have elongate coracoids and so may have been the first flapper in the lineage.
Figure 1. Xiaotingia with new pectoral interpretation. See figure 3 for new tracing.

Figure 2. Xiaotingia with new pectoral interpretation.

Habib M, Dececchi A, Dufaault D and Larsson HC 2016. Up, up and away: terrestrial launching in theropods. Abstract from the 2016 meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Heers AM, Baier DB, Jackson BE & Dial  KP 2016. 
Flapping before Flight: High Resolution, Three-Dimensional Skeletal Kinematics of Wings and Legs during Avian Development. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0153446. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0153446
http: // journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0153446

YouTube video showing birds running up tree trunks while flapping with nonviolent wings

ScienceNews online promo.

2 thoughts on “Jurassic birds took off from the ground – SVP abstracts 2016

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