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  1. Our understanding of the earliest stages of crown bird evolution is hindered by an exceedingly sparse avian fossil record from the Mesozoic era. The most ancient phylogenetic divergences among crown birds are known to have occurred in the Cretaceous period but stem-lineage representatives of the deepest subclades of crown birds—Palaeognathae (ostriches and kin), Galloanserae (landfowl and waterfowl) and Neoaves (all other extant birds)—are unknown from the Mesozoic era. As a result, key questions related to the ecology, biogeography and divergence times of ancestral crown birds remain unanswered. Here we report a new Mesozoic fossil that occupies a position close to the last common ancestor of Galloanserae and fills a key phylogenetic gap in the early evolutionary history of crown birds. Asteriornis maastrichtensis, gen. et sp. nov., from the Maastrichtian age of Belgium (66.8–66.7 million years ago), is represented by a nearly complete, three-dimensionally preserved skull and associated postcranial elements. The fossil represents one of the only well-supported crown birds from the Mesozoic era, and is the first Mesozoic crown bird with well-represented cranial remains. Asteriornis maastrichtensis exhibits a previously undocumented combination of galliform (landfowl)-like and anseriform (waterfowl)-like features, and its presence alongside a previously reported Ichthyornis-like taxon from the samemore »locality provides direct evidence of the co-occurrence of crown birds and avialan stem birds. Its occurrence in the Northern Hemisphere challenges biogeographical hypotheses of a Gondwanan origin of crown birds, and its relatively small size and possible littoral ecology may corroborate proposed ecological filters that influenced the persistence of crown birds through the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.« less
  2. Relative brain size has long been considered a reflection of cognitive capacities and has played a fundamental role in developing core theories in the life sciences. Yet, the notion that relative brain size validly represents selection on brain size relies on the untested assumptions that brain-body allometry is restrained to a stable scaling relationship across species and that any deviation from this slope is due to selection on brain size. Using the largest fossil and extant dataset yet assembled, we find that shifts in allometric slope underpin major transitions in mammalian evolution and are often primarily characterized by marked changes in body size. Our results reveal that the largest-brained mammals achieved large relative brain sizes by highly divergent paths. These findings prompt a reevaluation of the traditional paradigm of relative brain size and open new opportunities to improve our understanding of the genetic and developmental mechanisms that influence brain size.