An Archaeopteryx-like theropod from China and the origin of Avialae

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Abstract

Archaeopteryx is widely accepted as being the most basal bird, and accordingly it is regarded as central to understanding avialan origins; however, recent discoveries of derived maniraptorans have weakened the avialan status of Archaeopteryx. Here we report a new Archaeopteryx-like theropod from China. This find further demonstrates that many features formerly regarded as being diagnostic of Avialae, including long and robust forelimbs, actually characterize the more inclusive group Paraves (composed of the avialans and the deinonychosaurs). Notably, adding the new taxon into a comprehensive phylogenetic analysis shifts Archaeopteryx to the Deinonychosauria. Despite only tentative statistical support, this result challenges the centrality of Archaeopteryx in the transition to birds. If this new phylogenetic hypothesis can be confirmed by further investigation, current assumptions regarding the avialan ancestral condition will need to be re-evaluated.

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Figure 1: Xiaotingia zhengi holotype (STM 27-2).
Figure 2: Selected skeletal elements of STM 27-2.
Figure 3: Selected skeletal elements of Archaeopteryx.
Figure 4: A simplified cladogram showing the systematic position of Xiaotingia among the Coelurosauria (see Supplementary Information ).

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank X. Zheng for permission to study the holotype specimen of Xiaotingia zhengi and for discussions; P. Chen, L. Hou and Z. Zhou for coordinating the project; C. Sullivan for editing and commenting on the manuscript; R. Li for illustrations; T. Yu for preparing the specimen; X. Ding for editing the illustrations; D. Pol for help in using the TNT software package; P. Barrett, O. Rauhut, M. Kölbl-Ebert and M. Röper for facilitating access to the Archaeopteryx specimens under their care; and G. Mayr for discussions. This work was supported by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Special Funds for Major State Basic Research Projects of China.

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X.X. designed the project, X.X., H.Y., K.D. and F.H. performed the research, and X.X. wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Xing Xu.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Text (see contents list for details), Supplementary Figures 1-11 with legends, Supplementary Table 1, a Supplementary Character list, a Supplementary Matrix and additional refernces. (PDF 1639 kb)

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Xu, X., You, H., Du, K. et al. An Archaeopteryx-like theropod from China and the origin of Avialae. Nature 475, 465–470 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10288

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