Science & Environment

Feathery fossils peg early birds to even earlier date

A. meemannae illustration Image copyright Zongda Zhang
Image caption The bird, reconstructed here by an illustrator, shows signs of a wading lifestyle

Scientists in China have described a new species of early bird, from two fossils with intact plumage dating to 130 million years ago.

Based on the age of the surrounding rocks, this is the earliest known member of the clade that produced today's birds: Ornithuromorpha.

It pushes back the branching-out of this evolutionary group by at least five million years.

The little bird appears to have been a wader, capable of nimble flight.

The discovery is reported in the journal Nature Communications.

Birds began to evolve from the dinosaurs some 150 million years ago at the tail end of the Jurassic period. This is the age of the famous but hotly contested "first bird" Archaeopteryx - now considered by many to be a feathered dinosaur.

Some 20 million years later, when the newfound species was wading and flitting through what would become north-eastern China, palaeontologists believe there was quite a variety of bird life.

Bare legs

About half of those species were Enantiornithes, a group of early birds with teeth and clawed wings that eventually all died out.

The other half, including the new find, were Ornithuromorpha - a group that eventually gave rise to modern birds and looked much more like them.

The branching event behind that forked diversity is what the new discovery pushes back in time; previously the earliest known Ornithuromorph was 125 million years old.

Image copyright Wang et al., Nature Communications
Image caption The well-preserved fossils included signs of the animal's plumage

The pair of skeletons that define the new species, christened Archaeornithura meemannae, were dug up from the Sichakou basin in Hebei province.

"The new fossil represents the oldest record of Ornithuropmorpha," said first author Wang Min, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. "It pushes back the origination date... by at least five million years."

The specimens were well preserved, revealing a number of details about A. meemannae. The bird stood about 15cm tall and its legs, even on the upper regions, had no feathers, which suggests a wading lifestyle.

The size and shape of its bones also suggest good manoeuvrability in the air.

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