The geometry of taking flight: limb morphometrics in Mesozoic theropods

Brandon P Hedrick, Phillip L Manning, Eric R Lynch, Samantha A Cordero, Peter Dodson
Journal of Morphology 2015, 276 (2): 152-66
Theropoda was one of the most successful dinosaurian clades during the Mesozoic and has remained a dominant component of faunas throughout the Cenozoic, with nearly 10,000 extant representatives. The discovery of Archaeopteryx provides evidence that avian theropods evolved at least 155 million years ago and that more than half of the tenure of avian theropods on Earth was during the Mesozoic. Considering the major changes in niche occupation for theropods resulting from the evolution of arboreal and flight capabilities, we have analyzed forelimb and hindlimb proportions among nonmaniraptoriform theropods, nonavian maniraptoriforms, and basal avialans using reduced major axis regressions, principal components analysis, canonical variates analysis, and discriminant function analysis. Our study is the first analysis on theropod limb proportions to apply phylogenetic independent contrasts and size corrections to the data to ensure that all the data are statistically independent and amenable to statistical analyses. The three ordination analyses we performed did not show any significant groupings or deviations between nonavian theropods and Mesozoic avian forms when including all limb elements. However, the bivariate regression analyses did show some significant trends between individual elements that suggested evolutionary trends of increased forelimb length relative to hindlimb length from nonmaniraptoriform theropods to nonavian maniraptoriforms to basal avialans. The increase in disparity and divergence away from the nonavian theropod body plan is well documented within Cenozoic forms. The lack of significant groupings among Mesozoic forms when examining the entire theropod body plan concurrently suggests that nonavian theropods and avian theropods did not substantially diverge in limb proportions until the Cenozoic.

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