The Hesperornithiformes constitute the first known avian lineage to secondarily lose flight in exchange for the evolution of a highly derived foot-propelled diving lifestyle, thus representing the first lineage of truly aquatic birds. First unearthed in the 19th century, and today known from numerous Late Cretaceous (Cenomanian-Maastrichtian) sites distributed across the northern hemisphere, these toothed birds have become icons of early avian evolution. Initially erected as a taxon in 1984 by L. D. Martin, Parahesperornis alexi
is known from the two most complete hesperornithiform specimens discovered to date and has yet to be fully described. P. alexi
thus contributes significantly to our understanding of hesperornithiform birds, despite often being neglected in favor of the iconic Hesperornis.
Here, we present a full anatomical description of P. alexi
based upon the two nearly complete specimens in the collections of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum, as well as an extensive comparison to other hesperornithiform taxa. This study reveals P. alexi
to possess a mosaic of basal and derived traits found among other hesperornithiform taxa, indicating a transitional form in the evolution of these foot-propelled diving birds. This study describes broad evolutionary patterns within the Hesperornithiformes, highlighting the significance of these birds as not only an incredible example of the evolution of ecological specializations, but also for understanding modern bird evolution, as they are the last known divergence of pre-modern bird diversification.
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