There are surprisingly few good books on the evolution and fossil history of birds: among those I recommend are Luis Chiappe’s Glorified Dinosaurs: The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds (Chiappe 2007), Gary Kaiser’s The Inner Bird: Anatomy and Evolution (Kaiser 2007), and Gerald Mayr’s Paleogene Fossil Birds (Mayr 2009). In view of this, Gareth Dyke and Gary Kaiser’s multi-authored Living Dinosaurs: the Evolutionary History of Modern Birds (published in 2011) is a most welcome addition.

An attractive volume with high production values and numerous excellent diagrams and photos (including a colour plate section), Living Dinosaurs contains 16 separate contributions on bird evolution, ranging in topic from bird origins and their Mesozoic and early Cenozoic diversification to conservation and the role of climate change in shaping the diversity and distribution of birds in the future. It is a technical book, intended for specialist researchers and not for a general audience.

As a strong proponent of the well supported inclusion of birds within the theropod dinosaur radiation, I’m personally more than happy to see people referring to birds as ‘living dinosaurs’. However, in this particular case I feel that the volume’s title is misleading, since it creates the impression that the book focuses on bird origins and on their place within Dinosauria more than it does. The volume is not, in fact, devoted to the evolutionary transition between non-avialan dinosaurs and birds, nor to the diversity and evolution of Mesozoic birds; just three of the volume’s articles cover these issues. Rather, it’s a very well rounded compilation of articles that cover the whole of bird history, the majority of included papers being on Cenozoic fossil birds and modern ones. Hopefully then, the title will not discourage those interested in birds but not necessarily in other dinosaur groups.

The 16 chapters are grouped into four sections. The first (containing three chapters) is on Mesozoic birds and on the evolution of birds from among bird-like theropods; the last (containing a single chapter) is on conservation and climate change. However, the central two sections are not so obviously distinct and I’m hard pressed to see why some chapters are in one section (‘“The contribution of paleontology to ornithology”: the diversity of modern birds: fossils and the avian tree of life’) rather than the other (‘The evolution of key avian attributes’).

Mesozoic birds and other dinosaurs

Among the chapters in that first section, Makovicky and Zanno’s (‘Theropod diversity and the refinement of avian characteristics’) and O’Connor, Chiappe and Bell’s (‘Pre-modern birds: avian divergences in the Mesozoic’) are both strong, providing good reviews of Mesozoic bird history. O’Connor et al.’s lengthy review of Mesozoic bird taxa is thorough and extremely well illustrated; the chapter is further useful in providing a large cladistic analysis. Unfortunately, there is hardly any resolution within Enantiornithines but a more recent study that builds on the same dataset does depict far better resolution within this large and important clade (O’Connor & Zhou 2012).

The third chapter in this section – Ward and Berner’s ‘Why were there dinosaurs? Why are there birds?’ – discusses how atmospheric composition might have contributed to Mesozoic dinosaur evolution. An interesting area no doubt, especially since improved knowledge of dinosaurian pneumaticity and the Mesozoic atmosphere have both inspired many to ask questions about the same topic. Ward and Berner suggest that dinosaur diversity may have increased in step with rising oxygen levels and that apneumatic ornithischians required these higher levels in order to flourish.

However, it looks unlikely that their data on dinosaur diversity across the Mesozoic is fine-scale enough to reliably support these suggestions. Furthermore, the assumption that dinosaur diversity was driven by such factors as atmospheric composition ignores the fact that dinosaurs were biologically remarkable, with (among saurischians) a bird-like pneumatic system, a predisposition for the evolution of long, flexible necks, an often quadrupedal, parasagittal construction that encouraged the evolution and diversification of large-bodied forms, and a life cycle that – even among giant forms – involved rapid growth and the production of relatively large egg clutches. Indeed, empirical studies have found little support for any link between dinosaur diversification and atmospheric composition: instead, the diversification potential (and hence general biology) of dinosaurs themselves was the main factor driving their evolution (Sander et al. 2011, Sookias et al. 2012).

Livezey, pseudotoothed birds and phorusrhacids

Many will note that the book includes one of the last (if not the last) published contributions submitted by Brad Livezey (sadly, Brad died in a vehicle collision in February 2011). His article is a philosophical review of the problems and pitfalls facing avian phylogenetics. There is much criticism here of the approaches favoured by various workers across palaeornithological and molecular fields, and there’s little doubt that some or many of his assertions will irk colleagues. It is certainly interesting to see Livezey’s opinions on such topics as the proposed (and, actually, robustly supported) close relationship between grebes and flamingos, and also his take on such issues as the ‘marriage of convenience’ between “paleomorphological and neomolecular” datasets (Gerald Mayr’s work is cited heavily in this section of the text), phylogenetic parsimony vs realism, and supertrees.

Several chapters review the current state of knowledge of key Cenozoic fossil groups, making the book an essential reference for palaeornithologists. Ksepka and Ando’s review of penguin evolution and history, and Bourdon’s chapter on pseudotoothed birds, are strong and valuable contributions (Bourdon’s suggestion that pseudotoothed birds are close to anseriforms has since been evaluated by Mayr (2011). He finds pseudotoothed birds to be the sister-group to the whole of Galloanserae).

Alvarenga, Chiappe and Bertelli review phorusrhacids and provide a new phylogenetic analysis of the group. Bathornis and Elaphrocnemus are recovered as successively closer to Phorusrhacidae (both are closer than is Cariama), and Phorusrhacidae includes Mesembrionithinae, Psilopterinae, and a mostly unresolved clade that includes patagornithines, phorusrhacines and brontornithines (Alvarenga et al. 2010). For all their fame as fantastic animals and among the most awesome of birds ever, phorusrhacids have seemingly been rather neglected as objects of serious study until quite recently. When we combine this chapter with Alvarenga & Höfling’s (2003) systematic revision of the group and Degrange et al.’s (2010) analysis of skull mechanics, we have an exciting new body of work on these birds, sure to inspire future studies. [There’s a lot of material on phorusrhacids in the Tet Zoo archives. I should collate, update and republish it all some time. See links below.]

Molecular (rather than fossil) data has been key to the construction of a modern phylogeny for the astonishingly species-rich passerines; Barker’s chapter reviews recent developments in this area, covering the structure of the tree as a whole, biogeography, and the whole question of why passerines (and why certain lineages within the group itself) are so diverse.

WAIR, brains, and the future

Part 3, on key avian attributes, includes chapters on the evolution of the flight stroke, brain anatomy, the timing of avian evolution, and the functional and phylogenetic diversity of marine birds. Tobalske, Warrick, Jackson and Dial’s article on the ‘Morphological and behavioural correlates of flapping flight’ combines another take on wing-assisted incline running with discussions of intermittent flight (bounding flight, flap-bounding and so on), manoeuvrability, and hovering (lots on hummingbirds, of course). Walsh and Milner’s article on avian brain anatomy and senses is an excellent review of this subject, even including a discussion of reported fossil endocasts (and claimed endocasts: witness Cerebavis cenomanica from the Late Cretaceous of Russia). I also especially enjoyed Kaiser’s discussion of those details of avian anatomy linked to aquatic life, but then I am something of a fan of Kaiser’s work (Kaiser 2007, Naish 2011).

Part 4 is titled ‘The future: conservation and climate change’. It only includes a single article – Thomas’s ‘The state of the world’s birds and the future of avian diversity’ – but it is a particularly good one, focusing on the predisposition of avian lineages to threat, the ecological consequences of their decline, and the responses of bird lineages to climate change. We know that some birds are seemingly benefiting from climate change (one example: Wandering albatrosses Diomedea exulans grow faster, get bigger and breed more successfully at the moment due to faster winds in the Southern Hemisphere (Weimerskirch et al. 2012)), but studies generally indicate that bird distribution and breeding behaviour is not changing fast enough to keep track with climate change. The article is a great review of the work done so far; it’s an area of research that’s sure to become more important in coming decades.

In short, Living Dinosaurs is a most worthy and well crafted volume. Its strength is in providing a surprising number of really good reviews of many aspects of bird evolution and history, generally written by leading workers in the respective areas. I personally found the book highly useful in my own research and ended up citing many of its chapters in a recently published review of the avialan fossil record (Naish 2012).

Gareth Dyke & Gary Kaiser, 2011. Living Dinosaurs: the Evolutionary History of Modern Birds. John Wiley & Sons (Chichester, UK), pp. 422. ISBN 978-0-4706-5666-2. Hardback, index, refs. Here on amazon. Here on

For previous articles on some of the subjects mentioned or discussed here, see...

Refs - -

Alvarenga, H., Chiappe, L. & Bertelli, S. 2011. Phorusrhacids: the terror birds. In Dyke, G. & Kaiser, G. (eds) Living Dinosaurs: the Evolutionary History of Modern Birds. John Wiley & Sons (Chichester, UK), pp. 187-208.

Chiappe, L. M. 2007. Glorified Dinosaurs: The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds. John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken (NJ, USA).

Degrange, F. J., Tambussi, C. P., Moreno, K., Witmer, L. M. & Wroe, S. 2010. Mechanical analysis of feeding behavior in the extinct “terror bird” Andalgalornis steulleti (Gruiformes: Phorusrhacidae). PLoS ONE 5 (8): e11856. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011856

Kaiser, G. W. 2007. The Inner Bird: Anatomy and Evolution. University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Mayr, G. 2009. Paleogene Fossil Birds. Berlin, Springer.

Mayr, G. 2011. Cenozoic mystery birds – on the phylogenetic affinities of bony-toothed birds (Pelagornithidae). Zoologica Scripta 40, 448-467.

Naish, D. 2011. [Review of] The inner bird: anatomy and evolution. Historical Biology 23, 313-316.

Naish, D. 2012. Birds. In Brett-Surman, M. K., Holtz, T. R. & Farlow, J. O. (eds) The Complete Dinosaur (Second Edition). Indiana University Press (Bloomington & Indianapolis), pp. 379-423.

O’Connor, J. K. & Zhou, Z. 2012. A redescription of Chaoyangia beishanensis (Aves) and a comprehensive phylogeny of Mesozoic birds. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology DOI:10.1080/14772019.2012.690455

Sander, P. M., Christian, A., Clauss, M., Fechner, R., Gee, C. T., Griebeler, E. M., Gunga, H.-C., Hummel, J., Mallison, H., Perry, S., Preuschoft, H. Rauhut, O., Remes, K., Tütken, T. Wings, O. & Witzel, U. 2011. Biology of the sauropod dinosaurs: the evolution of gigantism. Biological Reviews 86, 117-155.

Sookias, R. B., Benson, R. B. J. & Butler, R. J. 2012. Biology, not environment, drives major patterns in maximum tetrapod body size through time. Biology Letters 8, 674-677.

Weimerskirch, H., Louzao, M., de Grissac, S., & Delord, K. 2012. Changes in wind pattern alter albatross distribution and life-history traits. Science 335, 211-214.

Zhou, Z. & Zhang, F. 2003. Anatomy of the primitive bird Sapeornis chaoyangensis from the Early Cretaceous of Liaoning, China. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 40, 731–747.