It’s official: birds are literally dinosaurs. Here’s how we know (2022)

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It’s official: birds are literally dinosaurs. Here’s how we know (1)

Drop any preconceptions of dinosaurs, which are likely reptile-centric and warped by Spielberg; the real dinosaurs are outside your window. Yes, birds are dinosaurs. Shaun Hurrell interviews dinosaur evolution expert Professor Roger Benson to unearth the latest research on the origin ofbirds.

Roger Benson’s latest paper features a feathered, chicken-sized, bird-like dinosaur revealed to have the hearing ability to rival a barn owl – a specialised nocturnal predator. Combined with short, muscular arms ending in a single giant claw for digging, Shuvuuia deserti (meaning ‘desert bird’) is not what you might classically expect from a dinosaur. Such are the revelations from fossil discoveries in recent decades that are changing how we see birds today. Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Oxford, Roger researches the evolution of dinosaurs – including bird origins – and large-scale evolutionary patterns. He explains why ‘dinosaur’ is more ‘incredible bird’ than ‘terrible lizard’…

Are birds really dinosaurs? Is it disputed?

There’s no longer really any doubt that birds are a type of dinosaur. These days, the debate is about details. The strong evidence doesn’t just come from fossilised bones and similarities found across the skeleton, but from fossilised soft tissue – especially feathers. Many dinosaurs had not just some kind of body covering, but distinctive bird-like feathers. Rare fossils also give us glimpses of the behaviour of bird-like dinosaurs, such as Mei long, a small, duck-sized bipedal dinosaur from the Cretaceous era. It was found preserved in volcanic ash falls – a bit like Pompeii – captured curled up in a sleeping position very similar to how a lot of birds roost today.

If feathers evolved in dinosaurs, what is the origin of birds?

Birds belong to the theropod group of dinosaurs that included T. rex. Theropods are all bipedal and some of them share more bird-like features than others. Archaeopteryx, discovered in 1861, was for a long time the only truly bird-like dinosaur – it’s from the Late Jurassic era (150 million years ago). Others closely related to birds, like Velociraptor, can be from the Late Cretaceous (100-66 million years ago), so they’d also had a lot of time to evolve independently. It’s the Late Jurassic where we start finding really interesting, distinctive, bird-like dinosaurs – especially with recent fossils from China preserved in fine-grain sediments from lake beds.

Such as?

Anchiornis is a Late Jurassic winged dinosaur, with large feather arrays on its legs. Fossils like this suggest the intriguing possibility that birds evolved from a gliding ancestor that had effectively four wings. That is cool. Also, Yi qi was discovered in the last couple of years. Its fossil has preserved soft tissue with a bat-like wing membrane.

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Could they fly?

Not all of the dinosaurian close relatives of birds could fly. But those that could, flew in a range of different ways – suggesting early evolutionary experiments of flight, with birds being the most successful of those experiments, and persisting to the present.

Were the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park covered in feathers?

We can confidently think of Velociraptor as having a bird-like feather covering, even though its fossils only preserve the bones. The skeleton has quill knobs on the ulna (wing bone – also found on today’s birds). Close relatives are better-preserved and show a complete body covering, ranging from down to quill feathers. They couldn’t fly, so the feathers could be to do with display. Reconstructions have moved on a bit since Jurassic Park… Artists have only recently let go of scaly, reptilian-like depictions. We can think of dinosaurs as more bird-like than reptile-like.

Above: an artist’s interpretation of Shuvuuia deserti, which means ‘desert bird’
© Viktor Radermacher

It’s official: birds are literally dinosaurs. Here’s how we know (2)

Were they warm-blooded?

For dinosaurs closest to birds – or, in fact, dinosaurs in general – we have so much evidence that suggests they were warm-blooded, short of actually sticking a thermometer in one. Growth rates and insulation are the smoking gun. They grow fast – we know from cutting up bones – faster than reptiles (including those from the same period), but not quite as fast as modern birds or mammals. For theropods where we can see soft tissue, we can see insulating feathers. All dinosaurs were on the road to becoming warm-blooded, with steps towards faster metabolic rates and very high body temperatures somewhat after the origin of birds. There wouldn’t have been a sluggish T. rex waiting for prey to walk by; we should think of them as active, curious animals.

What would you say to people that would say birds aren’t dinosaurs?

If birds aren’t dinosaurs, then we have no idea what they are. Birds share so many features with theropods and there are no other candidate fossil groups. When you understand that birds are a type of dinosaur, that the evidence has stacked up, everything starts to make more sense. Birds inherit their bipedalism from theropods, explaining why they evolved flight using just their forelimbs, unlike bats or pterosaurs. If that hypothesis was wrong, we’d expect to be just as uncertain about bird origins today as 30 years ago.

But didn’t Triceratops, from a completely distant group of dinosaurs, have a beak?

Many groups have lost teeth and evolved a beak. Triceratops had a beak at the front of the mouth. Sheep also lack teeth at the front in their upper jaw. That’s for grabbing vegetation, and evolves frequently.

Is flight the key to the origin of birds, then?

Palaeontologists ask ‘what makes Archaeopteryx a fossil bird rather than another bird-like dinosaur?’, and it’s the capability of powered flight. The wing feather arrangement is much more similar to modern birds. But the more we know about bird-like dinosaurs, the more we find that specific features of birds have an older origin. Walking on two legs, having feathers, laying eggs, warm bloodedness – they’re just inherited features from dinosaurs.

How did powered flight begin in bird-like dinosaurs?

Not everyone agrees, but many think they were tree-climbing animals that glided. I think they evolved flight from the trees down. From an aerodynamic perspective it’s easier to see how that would work. To evolve flight from the ground up, evolution would need to master a number of different things about flight control and power quickly. That’s more difficult. When did they learn to climb trees? We would like to know!

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It’s official: birds are literally dinosaurs. Here’s how we know (3)

“There wouldn’t have been a sluggish T. rex waiting for prey to walk by; we should think of them as active, curious animals.”

Professor Roger Benson

It’s official: birds are literally dinosaurs. Here’s how we know (4)

Why were birds the only dinosaurs that survived the mass extinction at the end of Cretaceous?

We know from the fossil record that large-bodied land animals were hit hard. Only the tiny survived. The smallest dinosaurs weighed about 500 g, but to survive as a land mammal you needed to weigh less than 50 g, and even then the chances were very slim. Lots of bird groups also went extinct. All sorts of reasons have been suggested – such as being a seed-eater or fish-eater (after the 10-km diameter meteor struck, there was a lack of sunlight due to dust, and freshwater ecosystems were a refuge). Some places would have been less terrible than others – clearly proximity to the impact zone in Mexico would have been terrible – but there were global effects.

Will only small animals survive the current sixth mass extinction and the bird declines BirdLife scientists are monitoring today?

We know from the fossil record that mass extinctions happen, but each one has a different cause and pattern. So we can’t predict what will happen next based on past mass extinctions. It’s much better to look at what’s happening to birds and other animals right now. The extinction of the dinosaurs is the most abrupt – it could have happened in a single year. The current mass extinction seems a lot faster than some of the other mass extinction events, though, in terms of rate of decline of abundance and rate of species loss. It’s terrifying, but only if it continues. And we have some control of this if people take action.

The other lesson from mass extinctions is that the biosphere will recover. But not in our lifetimes – only on timescales that aren’t useful for human society. Some of our best fossil record studies monitor extinctions with data points every 100,000 years … So today, monitoring birds is one of the most important things we can do to catch species before they’re unknowingly lost.

Favourite bird?

I really like the Inaccessible Island Rail, the smallest flightless bird, living precariously on a tiny island. How can it be so small? It’s got something to tell us about evolution. No dinosaur had ever been that small. Islands are fascinating for an evolutionary biologist and we can’t risk losing this information from science, the sum of human knowledge. That’s just one reason why BirdLife’s work to protect island birds from introduced species is so important.

Given your expertise, how do you feel when you look at birds today?

I like watching them because I like animals and birds are some of the most visible. You can say that a pigeon’s foot is similar to a dinosaur’s – birds have inherited so much from dinosaurs but are also so distinctive in their own right. I respect that and see them doing something fundamentally different to what most dinosaurs would have done. They use resources in a way that ground-walking animals can’t. At any one time there were probably only about 1,000 species of dinosaur on earth, whereas birds have taken what they’ve inherited from dinosaurs and done a lot more with it, giving rise to an enormous diversity of 11,000 species. People love dinosaurs and people love birds. What could be more interesting?

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It’s official: birds are literally dinosaurs. Here’s how we know (8)

It’s official: birds are literally dinosaurs. Here’s how we know (9)

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FAQs

How do we know that birds are dinosaurs? ›

Birds have scales like many dinosaurs and some dinosaurs may have had feathers. Scientists have discovered that the tissues used to produce scales in reptiles are similar to those that produce feathers in birds. This suggests that there is a common ancestor between dinosaurs, birds, and reptiles.

Who says that birds are related to dinosaurs? ›

The discovery in the late 1870s of the iconic "Berlin specimen" of Archaeopteryx, complete with a set of reptilian teeth, provided further evidence. Like Cope, Huxley proposed an evolutionary relationship between birds and dinosaurs.

Why do scientists say birds are dinosaurs? ›

By now, most biologists agree birds are dinosaurs—that they evolved from a group of maniraptoran theropods sometime in the Jurassic Period (around 150 million years ago).

Do birds have dinosaur DNA? ›

Scientists now agree that birds alive today are living dinosaurs, directly descended from theropods (carnivorous dinosaurs that walked on two legs). Birds have a lot of chromosomes compared to most other species and this is possibly one of the reasons why they are so diverse.

Is a chicken a dinosaur? ›

So, are chickens dinosaurs? No – the birds are a distinct group of animals, but they did descend from the dinosaurs, and it's not too much of a twist of facts to call them modern dinosaurs. There are many similarities between the two types of animal, largely to do with bone structure.

What is the closest living animal to a dinosaur? ›

In fact, birds are commonly thought to be the only animals around today that are direct descendants of dinosaurs. So next time you visit a farm, take a moment to think about it. All those squawking chickens are actually the closest living relatives of the most incredible predator the world has ever known!

Did all birds evolve from dinosaurs? ›

Birds evolved from a group of meat-eating dinosaurs called theropods. That's the same group that Tyrannosaurus rex belonged to, although birds evolved from small theropods, not huge ones like T. rex. The oldest bird fossils are about 150 million years old.

How did dinosaurs turn into birds? ›

During the course of their evolutionary history, the body size of some theropod groups gradually decreased - a trend that, together with many other changes to the skeleton, ultimately led to the appearance of birds. Paul says, 'In 1996 the first feathered dinosaur was announced and many others have come to light since.

Why are birds the only surviving dinosaurs? ›

All told, more than 75 percent of species known from the end of the Cretaceous period, 66 million years ago, didn't make it to the following Paleogene period. The geologic break between the two is called the K-Pg boundary, and beaked birds were the only dinosaurs to survive the disaster.

Will birds become dinosaurs again? ›

Dinosaurs had long tails with bones all along them. Birds' tails are stumpy and have been for more than 100 million years. It's unlikely this would ever be reversed.

Are chickens related to T. rex? ›

The closest living relatives of Tyrannosaurus rex are birds such as chickens and ostriches, according to research published today in Science (and promptly reported in the New York Times). Paleontologists used material discovered in a chance find in 2003 to pin down the link.

Do humans share DNA with dinosaurs? ›

Common Ancestors:

From our knowledge of the theory of Evolution, we know that all life is related and that all animals came from a common ancestor. This also means that we share our DNA with other organisms including dinosaurs.

Why did birds not evolve from dinosaurs? ›

Supposedly, theropods are too large and too specialized for terrestrial cursoriality to give rise to birds, possess anatomical characters that bar them from avialan ancestry, and appear too late in the Mesozoic record to be ancestral to Archaeopteryx (e.g., Martin 1983; Feduccia 1996, 2002).

Are humans descended from birds? ›

Thus, at least 600 million years of evolution separate humans from Aves, a considerable stretch of time even in evolutionary terms. Given this length of time, is not surprising that birds and humans might share traits both in virtue of common descent, as well as a result of independent, convergent evolution.

How did the T. rex evolved into a chicken? ›

“A bird didn't just evolve from a T. rex overnight, but rather the classic features of birds evolved one by one; first bipedal locomotion, then feathers, then a wishbone, then more complex feathers that look like quill-pen feathers, then wings,” Brusatte said.

Is a crocodile a dinosaur? ›

Dinosaurs are archosaurs, a larger group of reptiles that first appeared about 251 million years ago, near the start of the Triassic Period. Some other non-dinosaur reptiles are also archosaurs, including pterosaurs (the now-extinct flying reptiles) and modern crocodiles and their ancestors.

Do dinosaurs Still Exist? ›

In an evolutionary sense, birds are a living group of dinosaurs because they descended from the common ancestor of all dinosaurs. Other than birds, however, there is no scientific evidence that any dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, or Triceratops, are still alive.

Did T. rex lay eggs? ›

rex parents cared for their young before or after they hatched. No T. rex eggs or nests have ever been found, but fossils of other Tyrannosaur relatives suggest that they laid elongated eggs, roughly 20 or more at a time.

What was on Earth before dinosaurs? ›

For approximately 120 million years—from the Carboniferous to the middle Triassic periods—terrestrial life was dominated by the pelycosaurs, archosaurs, and therapsids (the so-called "mammal-like reptiles") that preceded the dinosaurs.

Why did Sharks survive when dinosaurs didn t? ›

Scientists believe that their ability to repair damaged DNA has helped them survive over the years. Their presence on the planet over millions of years have earned them the title of living fossil. Sharks also have a strong immune system that protects them from serious infection and illness.

What dinosaur is closest to a dog? ›

The First Canids: Hesperocyon and the "Bone-Crushing Dogs"

Paleontologists agree that the late Eocene (about 40 to 35 million years ago) Hesperocyon was directly ancestral to all later canids — and thus to the genus Canis, which branched off from a subfamily of canids about six million years ago.

What animal was the first to exist on Earth? ›

The First Animals

Sponges were among the earliest animals. While chemical compounds from sponges are preserved in rocks as old as 700 million years, molecular evidence points to sponges developing even earlier.

What was the first bird on Earth? ›

The earliest known (from fossils) bird is the 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx, but birds had evolved before then. A range of birds with more advanced features appeared soon after Archaeopteryx.

What is the oldest species of bird still alive? ›

The Nebraska fossil is about 10 million years old and identical to the sandhill crane that exists today. This would make it the oldest living bird species in the world.

What did T. rex evolve from? ›

Daspletosaurus torosus is most widely accepted as the direct ancestor to Tyrannosaurus rex. The only notable differences between the two are that Daspletosaurus possesses proportionally larger teeth, longer arms, and smaller feet, and is overall more muscular and heavily built than Tyrannosaurus.

Is a bird a dinosaur? ›

Birds belong to the theropod group of dinosaurs that included T. rex. Theropods are all bipedal and some of them share more bird-like features than others. Archaeopteryx, discovered in 1861, was for a long time the only truly bird-like dinosaur – it's from the Late Jurassic era (150 million years ago).

Were dinosaurs a bird or a lizard? ›

Dinosaurs and many other extinct forms are more closely related to birds than to crocodiles, so this definition would not only include all birds, but all dinosaurs and probably all pterosaurs.

Why did dinosaurs go extinct but not birds? ›

When an asteroid hit Earth 66 million years ago, only those feathered maniraptorans that had downsized to about 1 kilogram or so—the birds—were able to survive, probably because their small size allowed them to adapt more easily to changing conditions, the team concludes online today in PLOS Biology.

What survived when dinosaurs died? ›

Birds: Birds are the only dinosaurs to survive the mass extinction event 65 million years ago. Frogs & Salamanders: These seemingly delicate amphibians survived the extinction that wiped out larger animals.

When was the last dinosaur alive? ›

Dinosaurs went extinct about 65 million years ago (at the end of the Cretaceous Period), after living on Earth for about 165 million years.

Are birds living dinosaurs? ›

Birds Are Living Dinosaurs - Discussion Questions

Scientists began understanding the evolutionary history of birds with the discovery of a dinosaur fossil called Archaeopteryx in Germany in the 1860's. It was a clearly an ancient bird, but with its distinct claws, tail and toothed beak, it also had dinosaur features.

Why are birds the only surviving dinosaurs? ›

All told, more than 75 percent of species known from the end of the Cretaceous period, 66 million years ago, didn't make it to the following Paleogene period. The geologic break between the two is called the K-Pg boundary, and beaked birds were the only dinosaurs to survive the disaster.

Do birds originate dinosaurs? ›

Birds evolved from dinosaurs in patchwork fashion over tens of millions of years before finally taking to the skies some 150 million years ago, paleontologists report. Birds are defined by a plethora of traits that are unique to them, such as feathers, hollow bones, a wishbone, and beaks.

Are dinosaurs just big birds? ›

So yes, birds are dinosaurs!

Birds belong to a group of dinosaurs that emerged during the Mesozoic Era, about 252 to 66 million years ago. The Mesozoic includes the Jurassic, Triassic, and Cretaceous periods. Technically, birds are “avian dinosaurs,” whereas a velociraptor or a sauropod is a non-avian dinosaur.

How did dinosaurs turn into birds? ›

During the course of their evolutionary history, the body size of some theropod groups gradually decreased - a trend that, together with many other changes to the skeleton, ultimately led to the appearance of birds. Paul says, 'In 1996 the first feathered dinosaur was announced and many others have come to light since.

Are chickens related to T. rex? ›

The closest living relatives of Tyrannosaurus rex are birds such as chickens and ostriches, according to research published today in Science (and promptly reported in the New York Times). Paleontologists used material discovered in a chance find in 2003 to pin down the link.

Do chickens come dinosaurs? ›

In a word, no. In the scheme of animal classification, T. rex and all other tyrannosaurs as well as chickens and all other birds all fit into the suborder Theropoda. Theropods are a large and diverse group of animals that have hollow bones and three-toed limbs in common.

Why did dinosaurs go extinct but not birds? ›

When an asteroid hit Earth 66 million years ago, only those feathered maniraptorans that had downsized to about 1 kilogram or so—the birds—were able to survive, probably because their small size allowed them to adapt more easily to changing conditions, the team concludes online today in PLOS Biology.

What survived when dinosaurs died? ›

Birds: Birds are the only dinosaurs to survive the mass extinction event 65 million years ago. Frogs & Salamanders: These seemingly delicate amphibians survived the extinction that wiped out larger animals.

What dinosaur is still alive today? ›

In an evolutionary sense, birds are a living group of dinosaurs because they descended from the common ancestor of all dinosaurs. Other than birds, however, there is no scientific evidence that any dinosaurs, such as Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, or Triceratops, are still alive.

What animal was the first to exist on Earth? ›

The First Animals

Sponges were among the earliest animals. While chemical compounds from sponges are preserved in rocks as old as 700 million years, molecular evidence points to sponges developing even earlier.

How did the T. rex evolved into a chicken? ›

“A bird didn't just evolve from a T. rex overnight, but rather the classic features of birds evolved one by one; first bipedal locomotion, then feathers, then a wishbone, then more complex feathers that look like quill-pen feathers, then wings,” Brusatte said.

What was before dinosaurs? ›

For approximately 120 million years—from the Carboniferous to the middle Triassic periods—terrestrial life was dominated by the pelycosaurs, archosaurs, and therapsids (the so-called "mammal-like reptiles") that preceded the dinosaurs.

Is a crocodile a dinosaur? ›

Dinosaurs are archosaurs, a larger group of reptiles that first appeared about 251 million years ago, near the start of the Triassic Period. Some other non-dinosaur reptiles are also archosaurs, including pterosaurs (the now-extinct flying reptiles) and modern crocodiles and their ancestors.

Did dinosaurs really roar? ›

Evidence suggests that dinosaur vocalizations were not likely to have sounded like roars at all! We'll explore what's known about the real voices of dinosaurs with a paleontological source and an interview with an expert who has made relevant discoveries.

Why did birds become so small? ›

Good to be small

The gradual evolution of smaller and smaller body size would have allowed the bird predecessors to explore novel niches and body plans off limits to their larger relatives,” he says. “It would have permitted them to chase insects, climb trees, leap and glide, and eventually develop powered flight.”

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