Palaeontology: the earliest bird

A lakeside wader that lived 130 million years ago in China has taken the title of the world's earliest-known bird. Two fossils, with well-preserved feathers and skeletons, show that the species had features very similar to its avian counterparts today, although it existed 65 million years before dinosaurs became extinct.

The discovery, described by a team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the journal Nature Communications, pushes back by at least five million years the evolution of Ornithuromorpha, the avian group that gave rise to all of today's birds.

The new species, called Archaeornithura meemannae in honour of Chinese palaeontologist Meemann Chang, was about 15cm long - comparable in size to some of today's songbirds. Its featherless legs, similar to those of modern waders, suggest that it lived on the shore of lakes in what is now Sichakou basin in Hebei, northeast China. It might have eaten lakeside plants or invertebrate animals. The plumage shows anatomical features characteristic of aerodynamic manoeuvrability in flight much like today's birds.


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> Until recently, scientists had little fossil evidence for the way birds evolved from dinosaurs, apart from the famous Archaeopteryx which lived about 150 million years ago. Whether it should be regarded as a primitive bird or a feathered dinosaur remains a matter of debate - and, whatever it was, evolutionary biologists do not regard Archaeopteryx as a direct ancestor of modern birds.

However, within the last few years fossil beds in northeast China dating from the early Cretaceous era have begun to yield some fine avian specimens, of which Archaeornithura meemannae is the oldest found so far. It is becoming clear that about half the avian species present before the extinction of the dinosaurs were Ornithuromorpha.

Photograph: Zongda Zhang

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