A new fossil is offering evidence that would return Archaeopteryx to the earliest branches of the bird family tree. But not the earliest branch—the new specimen may be taking that cake.
Archaeopteryx was the oldest fossil found that could be considered a bird until recently. But the key word here is “could”—ever since the discovery of Archaeopteryx, Paleontologists have debated whether or not it was truly a bird. In 2009, a PLoS ONE study was published that deemed it to be in fact closer to a dinosaur due to its metabolism and slow growth rate, both more similar to that of dinosaurs.
The Nature journal study, led by Pasal Godefroit from the Royal Belgian Institute, examines a 160-million-year-old fossil from the Lianong Province of China named Aurornis xui. The specimen, who bore a complete skeleton and had exceptionally well-preserved feathers, belonged to a small chicken-like creature that lived 10 million years before Archaeopteryx. Godefroit maintains that this study reveals Aurornis is the oldest bird yet discovered.
The team reexamined other specimens from the bird lineage and, along with Aurornis, used these to find more evidence indicative of the fact that Archaeopteryx was in fact not a dinosaur but an early bird—though not the earliest. That title now belongs to Aurornis xui.
But as scientific research usually goes, there is some contention. Other paleontologists think Aurornis was more dinosaurlike and a close ancestor to the birds, but not a true bird.
Find Godefroit’s study in the journal Nature.
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