Non-avian dinosaurs went extinct 66?million years ago, geologically coincident with the impact of a large bolide (comet or asteroid) during an interval of massive volcanic eruptions and changes in temperature and sea level. There has long been fervent debate about how these events affected dinosaurs. We review a wealth of new data accumulated over the past two decades, provide updated and novel analyses of long-term dinosaur diversity trends during the latest Cretaceous, and discuss an emerging consensus on the extinction's tempo and causes. Little support exists for a global, long-term decline across non-avian dinosaur diversity prior to their extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. However, restructuring of latest Cretaceous dinosaur faunas in North America led to reduced diversity of large-bodied herbivores, perhaps making communities more susceptible to cascading extinctions. The abruptness of the dinosaur extinction suggests a key role for the bolide impact, although the coarseness of the fossil record makes testing the effects of Deccan volcanism difficult.
Large-scale adaptive radiations might explain the runaway success of a minority of extant vertebrate clades. This hypothesis predicts, among other things, rapid rates of morphological evolution during the early history of major groups, as lineages invade disparate ecological niches. However, few studies of adaptive radiation have included deep time data, so the links between extant diversity and major extinct radiations are unclear. The intensively studied Mesozoic dinosaur record provides a model system for such investigation, representing an ecologically diverse group that dominated terrestrial ecosystems for 170 million years. Furthermore, with 10,000 species, extant dinosaurs (birds) are the most speciose living tetrapod clade. We assembled composite trees of 614-622 Mesozoic dinosaurs/birds, and a comprehensive body mass dataset using the scaling relationship of limb bone robustness. Maximum-likelihood modelling and the node height test reveal rapid evolutionary rates and a predominance of rapid shifts among size classes in early (Triassic) dinosaurs. This indicates an early burst niche-filling pattern and contrasts with previous studies that favoured gradualistic rates. Subsequently, rates declined in most lineages, which rarely exploited new ecological niches. However, feathered maniraptoran dinosaurs (including Mesozoic birds) sustained rapid evolution from at least the Middle Jurassic, suggesting that these taxa evaded the effects of niche saturation. This indicates that a long evolutionary history of continuing ecological innovation paved the way for a second great radiation of dinosaurs, in birds. We therefore demonstrate links between the predominantly extinct deep time adaptive radiation of non-avian dinosaurs and the phenomenal diversification of birds, via continuing rapid rates of evolution along the phylogenetic stem lineage. This raises the possibility that the uneven distribution of biodiversity results not just from large-scale extrapolation of the process of adaptive radiation in a few extant clades, but also from the maintenance of evolvability on vast time scales across the history of life, in key lineages.
Today, biodiversity decreases from equatorial to polar regions. This is a fundamental pattern governing the distribution of extant organisms, the understanding of which is critical to predicting climatically driven biodiversity loss. However, its causes remain unresolved. The fossil record offers a unique perspective on the evolution of this latitudinal biodiversity gradient (LBG), providing a dynamic system in which to explore spatiotemporal diversity fluctuations. Deep-time studies indicate that a tropical peak and poleward decline in species diversity has not been a persistent pattern throughout the Phanerozoic, but is restricted to intervals of the Palaeozoic and the past 30 million years. A tropical peak might characterise cold icehouse climatic regimes, whereas warmer greenhouse regimes display temperate diversity peaks or flattened gradients.
The Late Cretaceous titanosauriform sauropod Huabeisaurus allocotus Pang and Cheng is known from teeth and much of the postcranial skeleton. Its completeness makes it an important taxon for integrating and interpreting anatomical observations from more fragmentary Cretaceous East Asian sauropods and for understanding titanosauriform evolution in general.
Theropod dinosaurs show striking morphological and functional tail variation; e.g., a long, robust, basal theropod tail used for counterbalance, or a short, modern avian tail used as an aerodynamic surface. We used a quantitative morphological and functional analysis to reconstruct intervertebral joint stiffness in the tail along the theropod lineage to extant birds. This provides new details of the tails morphological transformation, and for the first time quantitatively evaluates its biomechanical consequences. We observe that both dorsoventral and lateral joint stiffness decreased along the non-avian theropod lineage (between nodes Theropoda and Paraves). Our results show how the tail structure of non-avian theropods was mechanically appropriate for holding itself up against gravity and maintaining passive balance. However, as dorsoventral and lateral joint stiffness decreased, the tail may have become more effective for dynamically maintaining balance. This supports our hypothesis of a reduction of dorsoventral and lateral joint stiffness in shorter tails. Along the avian theropod lineage (Avialae to crown group birds), dorsoventral and lateral joint stiffness increased overall, which appears to contradict our null expectation. We infer that this departure in joint stiffness is specific to the tails aerodynamic role and the functional constraints imposed by it. Increased dorsoventral and lateral joint stiffness may have facilitated a gradually improved capacity to lift, depress, and swing the tail. The associated morphological changes should have resulted in a tail capable of producing larger muscular forces to utilise larger lift forces in flight. Improved joint mobility in neornithine birds potentially permitted an increase in the range of lift force vector orientations, which might have improved flight proficiency and manoeuvrability. The tail morphology of modern birds with tail fanning capabilities originated in early ornithuromorph birds. Hence, these capabilities should have been present in the early Cretaceous, with incipient tail-fanning capacity in the earliest pygostylian birds.
Indias Late Cretaceous fossil mammals include the only undisputed pre-Tertiary Gondwanan eutherians, such as Deccanolestes. Recent studies have suggested a relationship between Deccanolestes and African and European Paleocene adapisoriculids, which have been variably identified as stem euarchontans, stem primates, lipotyphlan insectivores, or afrosoricids. Support for a close relationship between Deccanolestes and any of these placental mammal clades would be unique in representing a confirmed Mesozoic record of a placental mammal. However, some paleogeographic reconstructions place India at its peak isolation from all other continents during the latest Cretaceous, complicating reconstructions of the biogeographic history of the placental radiation. Recent fieldwork in India has recovered dozens of better-preserved specimens of Cretaceous eutherians, including several new species. Here, we incorporate these new specimens into an extensive phylogenetic analysis that includes every clade with a previously hypothesized relationship to Deccanolestes. Our results support a robust relationship between Deccanolestes and Paleocene adapisoriculids, but do not support a close affinity between these taxa and any placental clade, demonstrating that Deccanolestes is not a Cretaceous placental mammal and reinforcing the sizeable gap between molecular and fossil divergence time estimates for the placental mammal radiation. Instead, our expanded data push Adapisoriculidae, including Deccanolestes, into a much more basal position than in earlier analyses, strengthening hypotheses that scansoriality and arboreality were prevalent early in eutherian evolution. This comprehensive phylogeny indicates that faunal exchange occurred between India, Africa, and Europe in the Late Cretaceous-Early Paleocene, and suggests a previously unrecognized ?30 to 45 Myr "ghost lineage" for these Gondwanan eutherians.
Digital reduction is a striking evolutionary phenomenon that is clearly exemplified in theropod dinosaurs by the functionally didactyl manus of tyrannosaurids, the flight-adapted manus of birds (Aves), and the tridactyl but digit II-dominated manus of alvarezsauroids. The enlargement of manual digit II in alvarezsauroids and the concurrent reduction of the lateral digits have been interpreted as adaptations for digging, although no detailed biomechanical analysis of hand function has so far been carried out for this group. In the derived alvarezsauroid clade Parvicursorinae, the lateral digits are so small as to be presumably vestigial. Here we report a new alvarezsauroid, Linhenykus monodactylus gen. et sp. nov., based on a specimen from the Upper Cretaceous Wulansuhai Formation of Inner Mongolia, China. Cladistic analysis identifies Linhenykus as the most basal parvicursorine, and digit II of the manus retains a slender morphology and other primitive features. However, Linhenykus is also highly apomorphic in exhibiting the most extreme reduction of the lateral manual digits seen in any alvarezsauroid. Phalanges are retained only on the most medial digit (digit II), making Linhenykus the only known functionally monodactyl nonavian dinosaur. Other parvicursorines are more primitive in retaining a tridactyl manus but more derived in that digit II is highly robust and shows other apomorphic features in both of its phalanges. The unexpected combination of features seen in the hand of Linhenykus points to a complex mosaic pattern of manual evolution in alvarezsauroids, with loss of the presumably vestigial outer digits being decoupled from change in the form of digit II.
The fossil record is our primary window onto the diversification of ancient life, but there are widespread concerns that sampling biases may distort observed palaeodiversity counts. Such concerns have been reinforced by numerous studies that found correlations between measures of sampling intensity and observed diversity. However, correlation does not necessarily mean that sampling controls observed diversity: an alternative view is that both sampling and diversity may be driven by some common factor (e.g. variation in continental flooding driven by sea level). The latter is known as the common cause hypothesis. Here, we present quantitative analyses of the relationships between dinosaur diversity, sampling of the dinosaur fossil record, and changes in continental flooding and sea level, providing new insights into terrestrial common cause. Although raw data show significant correlations between continental flooding/sea level and both observed diversity and sampling, these correlations do not survive detrending or removal of short-term autocorrelation. By contrast, the strong correlation between diversity and sampling is robust to various data transformations. Correlations between continental flooding/sea level and taxic diversity/sampling result from a shared upward trend in all data series, and short-term changes in continental flooding/sea level and diversity/sampling do not correlate. The hypothesis that global dinosaur diversity is tied to sea-level fluctuations is poorly supported, and terrestrial common cause is unsubstantiated as currently conceived. Instead, we consider variation in sampling to be the preferred null hypothesis for short-term diversity variation in the Mesozoic terrestrial realm.
Sauropod dinosaurs were the largest terrestrial herbivores and pushed at the limits of vertebrate biomechanics and physiology. Sauropods exhibit high craniodental diversity in ecosystems where numerous species co-existed, leading to the hypothesis that this biodiversity is linked to niche subdivision driven by ecological specialisation. Here, we quantitatively investigate feeding behaviour hypotheses for the iconic sauropod Diplodocus. Biomechanical modelling, using finite element analysis, was used to examine the performance of the Diplodocus skull. Three feeding behaviours were modelled: muscle-driven static biting, branch stripping and bark stripping. The skull was found to be over engineered for static biting, overall experiencing low stress with only the dentition enduring high stress. When branch stripping, the skull, similarly, is under low stress, with little appreciable difference between those models. When simulated for bark stripping, the skull experiences far greater stresses, especially in the teeth and at the jaw joint. Therefore, we refute the bark-stripping hypothesis, while the hypotheses of branch stripping and/or precision biting are both consistent with our findings, showing that branch stripping is a biomechanically plausible feeding behaviour for diplodocids. Interestingly, in all simulations, peak stress is observed in the premaxillary-maxillary lateral plates, supporting the hypothesis that these structures evolved to dissipate stress induced while feeding. These results lead us to conclude that the aberrant craniodental form of Diplodocus was adapted for food procurement rather than resisting high bite forces.
Many palaeobiological analyses have concluded that modern birds (Neornithes) radiated no earlier than the Maastrichtian, whereas molecular clock studies have argued for a much earlier origination. Here, we assess the quality of the fossil record of Mesozoic avian species, using a recently proposed character completeness metric which calculates the percentage of phylogenetic characters that can be scored for each taxon. Estimates of fossil record quality are plotted against geological time and compared to estimates of species level diversity, sea level, and depositional environment. Geographical controls on the avian fossil record are investigated by comparing the completeness scores of species in different continental regions and latitudinal bins. Avian fossil record quality varies greatly with peaks during the Tithonian-early Berriasian, Aptian, and Coniacian-Santonian, and troughs during the Albian-Turonian and the Maastrichtian. The completeness metric correlates more strongly with a sampling corrected residual diversity curve of avian species than with the raw taxic diversity curve, suggesting that the abundance and diversity of birds might influence the probability of high quality specimens being preserved. There is no correlation between avian completeness and sea level, the number of fluviolacustrine localities or a recently constructed character completeness metric of sauropodomorph dinosaurs. Comparisons between the completeness of Mesozoic birds and sauropodomorphs suggest that small delicate vertebrate skeletons are more easily destroyed by taphonomic processes, but more easily preserved whole. Lagerstätten deposits might therefore have a stronger impact on reconstructions of diversity of smaller organisms relative to more robust forms. The relatively poor quality of the avian fossil record in the Late Cretaceous combined with very patchy regional sampling means that it is possible neornithine lineages were present throughout this interval but have not yet been sampled or are difficult to identify because of the fragmentary nature of the specimens.
The most primitive ornithischian dinosaurs were small bipeds, but quadrupedality evolved three times independently in the clade. The transition to quadrupedality from bipedal ancestors is rare in the history of terrestrial vertebrate evolution, and extant analogues do not exist. Constraints imposed on quadrupedal ornithischians by their ancestral bipedal bauplan remain unexplored, and consequently, debate continues about their stance and gait. For example, it has been proposed that some ornithischians could run, while others consider that none were cursorial.
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