Birds

fossil bird

The popular held notion that all dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago is wrong. Some survived and evolved into the birds we see around us. We are fairly certain that birds evolved from therapod (beast-footed) dinosaurs, a group which includes the well-known Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor. Therapods and birds have many features in common including bipedalism, light thin-walled bones and even, in some cases, feathers. The best known bird fossil is the 150 million year old Archaeopteryx lithographica (case 22 has two Archaeopteryx fossil replicas). This was seen as the missing link between birds and reptiles since it had wings with fully formed feathers, teeth, and a long bony tail. Feathers are made from the protein keratin, also found in hair and nails, which you can imagine in most instances wouldn't survive the fossilization process.

Since the 1990s a remarkable series of fossils have been coming out of China. These reveal feathered dinosaurs that are clearly therapods and not birds. The latest of these, described in April 2012, was a 1.5 tonne relative of T. rex. Clearly these animals didn't fly, so why were they feathered? The latest thinking is that feathers evolved to keep the animals warm and were later adapted for flight by birds.

Modern birds arose around 60 million years ago, and are divided into two broad lineages, the Palaeognathes (including the rhea, ostrich and tinamous) and the Neognathes (all other birds). The Neognathes contain the Passeriformes (perching-birds such as blackbirds, robins etc) of which there are over 5,000 species. Within the bird class Aves there are 28 orders and, within these, around 172 families and almost 10,000 living species. 

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