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Large flesh-eating dinosaurs evolved into small flying birds, but it did not happen overnight. An international team of scientists on Thursday described an extraordinary evolutionary process that unfolded over a period of 50 million years in which a lineage of carnivorous dinosaurs shrank steadily and acquired numerous traits that led to the first appearance of birds. The researchers, using techniques developed by molecular biologists to reconstruct virus evolution, examined 1 500 anatomical traits in 120 different dinosaurs from the theropod group. These bipedal meat-eaters included giants like Tyrannosaurus rex and Giganotosaurus as well as the lineage that produced birds.

“Our study measured the rate of evolution of different groups of theropod dinosaurs”, said lead researcher Michael Lee, a palaeontologist at the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum.”The fastest-evolving group also happened to be ancestral to birds. So, ultimately, the most adaptable dinosaurs proved to be the best long-term survivors, and surround us today in their feathered splendour”, Lee explained.

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