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Fossil that fills a critical gap in avian evolution


Despite the discoveries of well-preserved Mesozoic birds1,2,3,4,5, a key part of avian evolution, close to the radiation of all living birds (Aves), remains poorly represented6. Here we report on a new taxon from the Late Cretaceous locality of Ukhaa Tolgod, Mongolia7, that offers insight into this critically unsampled period. Apsaravis and the controversial alvarezsaurids8 are the only avialan9 taxa known from the continental deposits at Ukhaa Tolgod, which have produced hundreds of fossil mammals, lizards and other small dinosaurs7. The new taxon, Apsaravis ukhaana, is the best-preserved specimen of a Mesozoic ornithurine bird discovered in over a century. It provides data important for assessing morphological evolution across Avialae, with implications for, first, the monophyly of Enantiornithes and Sauriurae; second, the proposition that the Mesozoic sister taxa of extant birds, as part of an ‘ecological bottleneck’, inhabited exclusively near-shore and marine environments2; and third, the evolution of flight after its origin.

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Figure 1: Apsaravis ukhaana, holotype IGM 100/1017.
Figure 2: Apsaravis ukhaana, holotype IGM 100/1017.
Figure 3: Apsaravis ukhaana, holotype IGM 100/1017.
Figure 4: Strict consensus of five most parsimonious cladograms (length, 354; CI, 0.69; RI, 0.81; RC, 0.56) indicating the placement of Apsaravis ukhaana in an analysis (using PAUP*4.0b2a25) of 199 characters and 17 taxa (see Supplementary Information).


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We thank the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the joint field parties of the MAS and AMNH. Comments from J. Gauthier, L. Chiappe, B. Creisler, S. Gatesy and P. Makovicky improved the manuscript. M. Ellison provided the figures. A. Davidson prepared the specimen. Support was provided by the Division of Paleontology and the Chapman Memorial Fund (AMNH), the Mercedes Benz Corporation, the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship and Yale University.

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Norell, M., Clarke, J. Fossil that fills a critical gap in avian evolution. Nature 409, 181–184 (2001).

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