Large-scale adaptive radiations might explain the runaway success of a minority of extant vertebrate clades. This hypothesis predicts, among other things, rapid rates of morphological evolution during the early history of major groups, as lineages invade disparate ecological niches. However, few studies of adaptive radiation have included deep time data, so the links between extant diversity and major extinct radiations are unclear. The intensively studied Mesozoic dinosaur record provides a model system for such investigation, representing an ecologically diverse group that dominated terrestrial ecosystems for 170 million years. Furthermore, with 10,000 species, extant dinosaurs (birds) are the most speciose living tetrapod clade. We assembled composite trees of 614–622 Mesozoic dinosaurs/birds, and a comprehensive body mass dataset using the scaling relationship of limb bone robustness. Maximum-likelihood modelling and the node height test reveal rapid evolutionary rates and a predominance of rapid shifts among size classes in early (Triassic) dinosaurs. This indicates an early burst niche-filling pattern and contrasts with previous studies that favoured gradualistic rates. Subsequently, rates declined in most lineages, which rarely exploited new ecological niches. However, feathered maniraptoran dinosaurs (including Mesozoic birds) sustained rapid evolution from at least the Middle Jurassic, suggesting that these taxa evaded the effects of niche saturation. This indicates that a long evolutionary history of continuing ecological innovation paved the way for a second great radiation of dinosaurs, in birds. We therefore demonstrate links between the predominantly extinct deep time adaptive radiation of non-avian dinosaurs and the phenomenal diversification of birds, via continuing rapid rates of evolution along the phylogenetic stem lineage. This raises the possibility that the uneven distribution of biodiversity results not just from large-scale extrapolation of the process of adaptive radiation in a few extant clades, but also from the maintenance of evolvability on vast time scales across the history of life, in key lineages.
Animals display huge morphological and ecological diversity. One possible explanation of how this diversity evolved is the "niche filling" model of adaptive radiation—under which evolutionary rates are highest early in the evolution of a group, as lineages diversify to fill disparate ecological niches. We studied patterns of body size evolution in dinosaurs and birds to test this model, and to explore the links between modern day diversity and major extinct radiations. We found rapid evolutionary rates in early dinosaur evolution, beginning more than 200 million years ago, as dinosaur body sizes diversified rapidly to fill new ecological niches, including herbivory. High rates were maintained only on the evolutionary line leading to birds, which continued to produce new ecological diversity not seen in other dinosaurs. Small body size might have been key to maintaining evolutionary potential (evolvability) in birds, which broke the lower body size limit of about 1 kg seen in other dinosaurs. Our results suggest that the maintenance of evolvability in only some lineages explains the unbalanced distribution of morphological and ecological diversity seen among groups of animals, both extinct and extant. Important living groups such as birds might therefore result from sustained, rapid evolutionary rates over timescales of hundreds of millions of years.