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The Evolution and Fossil Record of Palaeognathous Birds (Neornithes: Palaeognathae)

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Widrig, K 
Field, DJ 


jats:pThe extant diversity of the avian clade Palaeognathae is composed of the iconic flightless ratites (ostriches, rheas, kiwi, emus, and cassowaries), and the volant tinamous of Central and South America. Palaeognaths were once considered a classic illustration of diversification driven by Gondwanan vicariance, but this paradigm has been rejected in light of molecular phylogenetic and divergence time results from the last two decades that indicate that palaeognaths underwent multiple relatively recent transitions to flightlessness and large body size, reinvigorating research into their evolutionary origins and historical biogeography. This revised perspective on palaeognath macroevolution has highlighted lingering gaps in our understanding of how, when, and where extant palaeognath diversity arose. Towards resolving those questions, we aim to comprehensively review the known fossil record of palaeognath skeletal remains, and to summarize the current state of knowledge of their evolutionary history. Total clade palaeognaths appear to be one of a small handful of crown bird lineages that crossed the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary, but gaps in their Paleogene fossil record and a lack of Cretaceous fossils preclude a detailed understanding of their multiple transitions to flightlessness and large body size, and recognizable members of extant subclades generally do not appear until the Neogene. Despite these knowledge gaps, we combine what is known from the fossil record of palaeognaths with plausible divergence time estimates, suggesting a relatively rapid pace of diversification and phenotypic evolution in the early Cenozoic. In line with some recent authors, we surmise that the most recent common ancestor of palaeognaths was likely a relatively small-bodied, ground-feeding bird, features that may have facilitated total-clade palaeognath survivorship through the K-Pg mass extinction, and which may bear on the ecological habits of the ancestral crown bird.</jats:p>



Palaeognathae, ostrich, tinamou, ratite, emu, kiwi, moa, elephant bird, rhea, Lithornithidae

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UK Research and Innovation (MR/S032177/1)