FANTASY VS REALITY: A Critique of Smith et al.'s Bird Origins

Alan Feduccia*
Department of Biology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3280, United States of America

© Alan Feduccia; Licensee Bentham Open.

open-access license: This is an open access article licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 4.0 International Public License (CC BY-NC 4.0) (, which permits unrestricted, non-commercial use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the work is properly cited.

* Address correspondence to this author at the Department of Biology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27599-3280, United States of America; E-mail:


Adherents of the current orthodoxy of a derivation of birds from theropod dinosaurs, criticize the commentary by Feduccia (2013, Auk, 130) [1-12] entitled “Bird Origins Anew” as well as numerous papers by Lingham-Soliar on theropod dermal fibers, using numerous mischaracterizations and misstatements of content, and illustrate their own misconceptions of the nature of the debate, which are here clarified. While there is general agreement with the affinity of birds and maniraptorans, the widely accepted phylogeny, advocating derived earth-bound maniraptorans giving rise to more primitive avians (i.e. Archaeopteryx), may be “topsy-turvy.” The current primary debate concerns whether maniraptorans are ancestral or derived within the phylogeny, and whether many maniraptorans and birds form a clade distinct from true theropods. Corollaries of the current scheme show largely terrestrial maniraptoran theropods similar to the Late Cretaceous Velociraptor giving rise to avians, and flight originating via a terrestrial (cursorial) “gravity-resisted,” as opposed to an arboreal “gravity-assisted” model. The current dogma posits pennaceous flight remiges in earth-bound theropods having evolved in terrestrial theropods that never flew. As part of the orthodoxy, fully feathered maniraptorans such as the tetrapteryx gliders Microraptor and allies, are incorrectly reconstructed as terrestrial cursors, when in reality their anatomy and elongate hindlimb feathers would be a hindrance to terrestrial locomotion.The same is true of many early birds, exemplified by reconstruction of the arboreally adapted Confuciusornis as a terrestrial predator, part of the overall theropodan scheme of birds evolving from terrestrial dinosaurs, and flight from the ground up. Both sides of this contentious debate must be constantly aware that new fossil or even molecular discoveries on birds may change current conclusions.

Keywords: Bird origins, cladistic, flight origins, maniraptoran, phylogenomics, theropod.