Museum Researcher Reveals How Dinosaurs Evolved Into Birds

01 August 2014

Dinosaur lineage graphic.

The dinosaur lineage which evolved into birds shrank in body size continuously for 50 million years. Image: Davide Bonnadonna.

Our everyday feathered friends are fast-evolving relatives of dinosaurs, according to a new study published today by Adelaide scientist Dr Mike Lee and colleagues, in the prestigious journal Science.

Senior Research Scientist Dr Mike Lee (jointly appointed at the South Australian Museum and the University of Adelaide) already has a fascinating portfolio of studies into ancient life. In his latest paper published in Science, his team used sophisticated mathematical modelling to trace how adaptations and body size evolved across the dinosaur family tree.

Our study sheds new light the seemingly unlikely transformation from bulky ground-dwelling dinosaurs into agile flying birds,” says Mike. Birds are just a branch of the dinosaur family tree, just like humans are a twig in the primate tree.

Birds arose from the most evolvable lineage of dinosaurs. The dinosaurs which eventually evolved into birds acquired new adaptations – such as wings and flight feathers – at a faster rate than other dinosaurs. They were also the only lineage of dinosaurs to continually shrink in size.

The most adaptable lineage of dinosaurs turned out to be the best survivors – with 10,000 species of feathered, chirping living descendants. There's a moral in there somewhere!

The international team that collaborated on the study also included Gareth Dyke and Darren Naish (both from the University of Southampton) and Andrea Cau (from the University of Bologna and Museo Geologico Giovanni Capellini).

South Australia was covered by a freezing inland sea during the age of dinosaurs, and this unique habitat and the associated fossils of marine reptiles is on display in the Fossil Gallery at the South Australian Museum.

This gallery has the world's largest display of opalised fossils, including South Australia's only dinosaur remains: a shin bone from a small bipedal carnivore. It was named Kakuru in 1980 by Curator Emeritus Neville Pledge, now an Honorary Researcher at the Museum.

Meet the ancestors: The feathered dinosaur Microraptor pounces on a nest of primitive birds (Sinornis).  Both species lived during the Cretaceous Period (~120 million years ago) in what is now northern China. Image: Brian Choo.

Meet the ancestors: The feathered dinosaur Microraptor pounces on a nest of primitive birds (Sinornis).  Both species lived during the Cretaceous Period (~120 million years ago) in what is now northern China. Image: Brian Choo.

For a fuller discussion of this research, see the article in The Conversation.