Archaeornithura meemannae pushes back the earliest known ancestor of modern birds by five million years.
Rosa Rubicondior explains, “A team of Chinese paleontologists has discovered a spectacularly well preserved fossil bird from 130 million years ago which neatly fills the gap in the fossil record between proto-birds such as archaeopteryx and modern birds.” She cleverly titled her May 5 article Early Bird Catches the Creationist Worms.
This bird’s feathers were exceptionally well preserved. “The feathers are really beautiful. It is incredible how they were preserved so well for 130 million years,” as Min Wang at the Chinese Academy of Sciences exclaims.
It’s extremely difficult to fossilize any part of an animal except bones, shells, and teeth. That’s why we have few fossils of anything until animals developed such hard parts around 500 million years ago. These exceptional feathers allow close comparison with modern birds and make the gorgeous artist’s conception above possible.
Put yourself on the planet 130 million years ago. Most of the animals, from horned dinosaurs to swimming, predatory plesiosaurs, would be deeply alien, not to say terrifying. But rising from the wetlands and winging across the sky were birds startlingly like today’s. That’s the message from two bird skeletons—spectacularly preserved with feathers and all—reported this week.
The bird’s well developed adaptations show that most features of modern birds had already evolved. This bird was evidently capable of skillful flight; but it had long legs adapted for wading, much like today’s plovers. This shows that birds had already specialized to some degree, filling new new niches made possible by feathers and flight.
These fossils were found in northeast China by paleontologists Min Wang and Zhonghe Zhou of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology from Beijing. They are at least 5 million years older than the previously oldest-known birds. It is almost certain from the development of this specimen that the lineage is much older still.
Earliest known ancestor of modern birds was found embedded in siltstone
The hummingbird-sized creatures were embedded in siltstone slabs that were probably once a lake bed. Stubby feathers cover their bodies, except for part of the legs.
“But of all the new specimens, this is one of the most important found over the last decade,” says paleontologist Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.
Group of meat-eating dinosaurs spread their feathered wings and took to the skies.
Birds evolved around 150 million years ago when the flying dinosaurs stopped breeding with ground-bound ones, letting them evolve separately to fly better. The Ornithurae branch still survives as modern birds. Since they descended from feathered dinosaurs, birds are the last living descendants of the creatures that once dominated our planet.
Not all dinosaurs spawned surviving bird lineages. Even some dinosaurs that did evolve into animals we’d call birds didn’t make it. The Enantiornithes, for example, early birds with clawed wings and teeth apparently didn’t get the first worm after all. They went extinct along with the ground-bound dinosaurs.
Birds soon evolved huge chest muscles to power their wings. We’ve encouraged them to grow even larger in some species, and often refer to them as “chicken tenders.” Their wings grew many layers of different types of feathers for expert flight.
Before finding this bird, researchers had not known when some of these features had emerged.