WANG Wei & Jingmai K. O'CONNOR (2017)
Morphological coevolution of the pygostyle and tail feathers in Early Cretaceous birds.
Vertebrata PalAsiatica (advance online publication)
The transformation from a long reptilian tail to a shortened tail ending in a pygostyle and accompanied by aerodynamic fanning rectrices is one of the most remarkable adaptations of early avian evolution. However, no fossils directly capture this transition, and information regarding the structural morphology and the early evolution of the pygostyle in Mesozoic birds and their integuments is relatively limited. Here we provide a review of the pygostyle morphology of Early Cretaceous birds with comparison to the structure in living birds. This study emphasizes the convergent evolution of distally co-ossified caudal vertebrae in non-avian maniraptorans and early birds. There further exist distinct differences in pygostyle morphology between Sapeornithiformes, Confuciusornithiformes, Enantiornithes, and Ornithuromorpha. The morphology of the pygostyle and rectrices in early ornithuromorphs appear similar to that of extant birds, whereas the pygostyle in more primitive birds does not appear morphologically capable of supporting the rectricial bulbs and musculature necessary to control an aerodynamic fan-shaped tail. The rectricial bulbs and rectricial fan appear to have coevolved with the plough-shaped pygostyle early in the evolution of the Ornithuromorpha. This study also shows that the confuciusornithiform pygostyle was more similar to that of enantiornithines than previously recognized, consistent with the presence of nearly identical ornamental tail feathers in both groups.