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A Jurassic avialan dinosaur from China resolves the early phylogenetic history of birds

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Abstract

The recent discovery of small paravian theropod dinosaurs with well-preserved feathers in the Middle–Late Jurassic Tiaojishan Formation of Liaoning Province (northeastern China)1,2,3,4 has challenged the pivotal position of Archaeopteryx3,4, regarded from its discovery to be the most basal bird. Removing Archaeopteryx from the base of Avialae to nest within Deinonychosauria implies that typical bird flight, powered by the forelimbs only, either evolved at least twice, or was subsequently lost or modified in some deinonychosaurians3,5. Here we describe the complete skeleton of a new paravian from the Tiaojishan Formation of Liaoning Province, China. Including this new taxon in a comprehensive phylogenetic analysis for basal Paraves does the following: (1) it recovers it as the basal-most avialan; (2) it confirms the avialan status of Archaeopteryx; (3) it places Troodontidae as the sister-group to Avialae; (4) it supports a single origin of powered flight within Paraves; and (5) it implies that the early diversification of Paraves and Avialae took place in the Middle–Late Jurassic period.

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Figure 1: Aurornis xui YFGP-T5198.
Figure 2: Selected skeletal elements of Aurornis xui YFGP-T5198.
Figure 3: Phylogenetic relationships of Aurornis xui among coelurosaurian theropods.

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Acknowledgements

We thank B. Pohl for making fossils available for study, S. Ge for help and comments on the manuscript and T. Hubin for photographs. This study was supported by a grant (BL/36/62) to P.G. from the SPP Politique scientifique (Belgium). D.H. was supported by the Key Laboratory of Evolutionary Systematics of Vertebrates (CAS2011LESV011) and by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41172026).

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Authors

Contributions

P.G., F.E., A.C. and W.W. designed the project. P.G., A.C., G.D. and H.D.-Y. performed the research. P.G., A.C. and G.D. wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Pascal Godefroit.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-8, Supplementary Tables 1-2, Supplementary Text (including Origin and age of YTGP-T5198, differential diagnosis of Aurornis xui gen. et sp. nov., details of phylogenetic analysis, alternative topologies from constraint analyses and A posteriori character weighting analyses), a character list, Nexus file data and Supplementary References. (PDF 2496 kb)

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Godefroit, P., Cau, A., Dong-Yu, H. et al. A Jurassic avialan dinosaur from China resolves the early phylogenetic history of birds. Nature 498, 359–362 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12168

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