Powered flight potential approached by wide range of close avian relatives but achieved selectively
Evolution of birds from non-flying theropod dinosaurs is a classic evolutionary transition, but a deeper understanding of early flight has been frustrated by disagreement on the relationships between birds (Avialae) and their closest theropod relatives. We address this through a larger, more resolved evolutionary hypothesis produced by a novel automated analysis pipeline tailored for large morphological datasets. We corroborate the grouping of dromaeosaurids + troodontids (Deinonychosauria) as the sister taxon to birds (Paraves), as well as the recovery of Anchiornithidae as basalmost avialans. Using these phylogenetic results and available data for vaned feathered paravians, maximum and minimum estimates of wing loading and specific lift calculated using ancestral state reconstruction analysis are used as proxies for the potential for powered flight through this transition. We found a broad range of paravian ancestors with estimates approaching values that are indicative of powered flight potential. This suggests that prior to the evolution of flight there was a wider extent of experimentation with wing-assisted locomotion among paravians than previously appreciated. We recovered wing loading and specific lift estimates indicating the potential for powered flight among fossil birds as well as unenlagiine and microraptorine dromaeosaurids. In the context of our phylogeny and of Mesozoic palaeogeography, our results suggest that the potential for powered flight originated three or more times from a broad range of ancestors already nearing this potential, providing a well-supported scenario for the origin of theropod flight to further explore. ### Competing Interest Statement The authors have declared no competing interest.
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