Biological Reviews

Review Article

Bird evolution in the Eocene: climate change in Europe and a Danish fossil fauna

Bent E. K. Lindow a1a2 and Gareth J. Dyke a1c1
a1 School of Biology and Environmental Science, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland
a2 Geological Museum, Natural History Museum of Denmark, Øster Voldgade 5-7, DK-1350, Copenhagen K, Denmark

Article author query
lindow be   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 
dyke gj   [PubMed][Google Scholar] 


The pattern of the evolutionary radiation of modern birds (Neornithes) has been debated for more than 10 years. However, the early fossil record of birds from the Paleogene, in particular, the Lower Eocene, has only recently begun to be used in a phylogenetic context to address the dynamics of this major vertebrate radiation. The Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-P) extinction event dominates our understanding of early modern bird evolution, but climate change throughout the Eocene is known to have also played a major role. The Paleocene and Lower Eocene was a time of avian diversification as a result of favourable global climatic conditions. Deteriorations in climate beginning in the Middle Eocene appear to be responsible for the demise of previously widespread avian lineages like Lithornithiformes and Gastornithidae. Other groups, such as Galliformes display replacement of some lineages by others, probably related to adaptations to a drier climate. Finally, the combination of slowly deteriorating climatic conditions from the Middle Eocene onwards, appears to have slowed the evolutionary rate in Europe, as avian faunas did not differentiate markedly until the Oligocene. Taking biotic factors in tandem with the known Paleogene fossil record of Neornithes has recently begun to illuminate this evolutionary event. Well-preserved fossil taxa are required in combination with ever-improving phylogenetic hypotheses for the inter-relationships of modern birds founded on morphological characters. One key avifauna of this age, synthesised for the first time herein, is the Lower Eocene Fur Formation of Denmark. The Fur birds represent some of the best preserved (often in three dimensions and with soft tissues) known fossil records for major clades of modern birds. Clear phylogenetic assessment of these fossils will prove critical for future calibration of the neornithine evolutionary timescale. Some early diverging clades were clearly present in the Paleocene as evidenced directly by new fossil material alongside the phylogenetically constrained Lower Eocene taxa. A later Oligocene radiation of clades other than Passeriformes is not supported by available fossil data.

(Received August 11 2005)
(Revised May 9 2006)
(Accepted May 12 2006)
(Published Online August 8 2006)

Key Words: Aves; Eocene; climate change; Paleogene; Denmark; Fur Formation; Neornithes; phylogeny.

c1 Author for correspondence. Tel: +353 1716 2195; Fax: +353 1716 1152. E-mail: