The World's Earliest Bird Discovered?

Reconstruction of Aurornis xui, a new basal avialan theropod from the Middle/Late Jurassic of China. Credit: Masato Hattori

Move over, Archaeopteryx, you might not be nature’s oldest bird after all. Aurornis xui, a newly discovered species of dinosaur, could be the earliest known member of the avian family tree, researchers reported this week in Nature.

The feathered dinosaur lived during the Jurassic, between 150 million and 160 million years ago—making it about 10 million years older than Archaeopteryx. It measures about a half-meter from beak to tail and had small, sharp teeth and long forelimbs. Pascal Godefroit, a palaeontologist who found the fossil last year in the museum at the Fossil and Geology Park in Yizhou, told Nature News that he thinks it’s a bird, but one that didn’t fly, but rather used its wings to glide from tree to tree.

Skeleton of the holotype specimen (YFGP {Yizhou Fossil & Geology Park}-T5198) of Aurornis xui, a new basal avialan theropod from the Middle/Late Jurassic of China. Credit: Thierry Hubin/IRSNB

More from Nature News:

Godefroit and his colleagues contend that Aurornis is the oldest known member of the Avialae, the group that includes every animal that is more closely related to modern birds than to non-avian dinosaurs such as Velociraptor. With Aurornis rooted at the base of the avian tree, the researchers place Archaeopteryx further up the trunk, firmly within the Avialae lineage, and not with the non-avian dinosaurs as other researchers recently suggested.

Godefroit notes that putting Archaeopteryx back within the bird lineage means that powered flight need have evolved only once among birds and dinosaurs. If Archaeopteryx, with its relatively well-developed wings, was more closely related to Velociraptor than to birds, powered flight would have had to evolve twice.

The finding makes one wonder what other treasures are sitting in museums, just waiting to be discovered.

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