Tonight, at dinner tables all around the country, families are going to dine on dinosaur. If you dissect your holiday theropod just right, the ancient nature of the tasty avian is strikingly evident–right down to the wishbone. But what kind of dinosaur is a turkey, anyway?
Birds are dinosaurs. That’s a fact. But birds are really just one kind of dinosaur. Indeed, we call Triceratops, Euoplocephalus, Futalognkosaurus, Allosaurus and their ilk non-avian dinosaurs because these lineages fell outside the bird subgroup at greater or lesser distances. Birds are a distinct form of dinosaur, nested within a great group of fuzzy and feathery forms.
Let’s start from the bottom up. The dinosaur family tree is divided into two major branches–the ornithischians (the ceratopsids, hadrosaurs, stegosaurs and their relatives) and the saurischians. The saurischian side is made up of the long-necked, big-bodied sauropodomorphs and the bipedal, often-carnivorous theropods. The theropod subset is further subdivided into various groups, one of the major ones being the coelurosaurs. This subset includes the the famous tyrannosaurs, ostrich-like ornithimomosaurs, odd-looking oviraptorosaurs, sickle-clawed deinonychosaurs and birds, among a few others. Every lineage within this group contained at least one representative with feathers, and many of these dinosaurs were quite bird-like both anatomically and behaviorally.
Now here’s where things get tricky. For decades, numerous anatomical characteristics seemed to link the earliest birds, represented by Archaeopteryx, with deinonychosaurs similar to Velociraptor and Troodon. But some paleontologists have questioned this hypothesis. Last year, a controversial Nature paper suggested that the resemblance was because Archaeopteryx wasn’t actually a bird but a non-avian dinosaur more closely related to Deinonychus, while the first birds evolved from feathered dinosaurs akin to Oviraptor or the enigmatic Epidexipteryx. Rather than being deadly hypercarnivores, these alternative candidates for avian ancestry were oddball omnivores that often sported flashy tail feathers.
Not everyone agrees with the new proposal. For now, Archaeopteryx is still widely regarded to be at the base of the bird family tree, recently branched off from a deinonychosaur ancestor. Nevertheless, the argument underscores the point that many traits thought to be exclusively avian evolved much earlier in dinosaurian history than we previously expected. The more dinosaurs we find, the smaller the difference between the earliest avian dinosaurs and their non-avian ancestors. I know the pudgy kid in Jurassic Park called Velociraptor as “six foot turkey” as a put-down, but the comment isn’t too far of the mark. When you pick at the bird on your plate tonight, you’re devouring the dressed remains of a distant Deinonychus cousin.