Low ecological disparity in early cretaceous birds

Jonathan S. Mitchell, Peter J. Makovicky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


Ecological divergence is thought to be coupled with evolutionary radiations, yet the strength of this coupling is unclear. When birds diversified ecologically has received much less attention than their hotly debated crown divergence time. Here, we quantify how accurately skeletal morphology can predict ecology in living and extinct birds, and show that the earliest known assemblage of birds (= pygostylians) from the Jehol Biota (≈ 125 Ma) was substantially impoverished ecologically. The Jehol avifauna has few representatives of highly preservable ecomorphs (e.g. aquatic forms) and a notable lack of ecomorphological overlap with the pterosaur assemblage (e.g. no large or aerially foraging pygostylians). Comparisons of the Jehol functional diversity with modern and subfossil avian assemblages show that taphonomic bias alone cannot explain the ecomorphological impoverishment. However, evolutionary simulations suggest that the constrained ecological diversity of the Early Cretaceous pygostylians is consistent with what is expected from a relatively young radiation. Regardless of the proximate biological explanation, the anomalously low functional diversity of the Jehol birds is evidence both for ecological vacancies in Cretaceous ecosystems, which were subsequently filled by the radiation of crown Aves, and for discordance between taxonomic richness and ecological diversity in the best-known Mesozoic ecosystem.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20140608
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1787
StatePublished - May 28 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Bird evolution
  • Functional diversity
  • Jehol biota
  • Palaeoecology


Dive into the research topics of 'Low ecological disparity in early cretaceous birds'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this