While you’ve been kicking back lately catching up on the new series of Game of Thrones (and who could blame you…), a team of researchers in China have unearthed the fossil of what they believe to be, the earliest known bird. In the fossil beds of Liaoning Province, the discovery of a new fossil called Aurornis xui has brought the spotlight on another famous old bird—Archaeopteryx, the infamous bird-like dinosaur. Aurornis xui, which means ‘Dawn Bird’, is another bird-dinosaur transition fossil, which lived 160 million years ago in a forested environment, was pre-flight, feathered and about 50 cm long.
Archaeopteryx was originally discovered in the 1860s and has claimed textbook fame ever since as the pivotal fossil link between dinosaurs and birds. However, more recent discoveries of similar species have suggested a downgrade of its importance.
As it turns out, textbook authors can rest easy. The new Aurornis xui find has shown that, in fact, Archaeopteryx is representative of a pivotal fossil for understanding the dinosaur to bird evolutionary relationship. A comprehensive analysis of over 1500 morphological characteristics were used to confirm the phylogeny of the species (where it belongs in the evolutionary tree). The China fossils are now providing incredible understanding on how birds evolved, and what kinds of evolutionary ‘experimentation’ led to their emergence. Dr Paul Barrett, of the Natural History Museum, London, told BBC News, “The beginnings of the bird line is all about fine-tuning parts of their anatomy- of their wings, of their hips, of their chest muscles and shoulder girdles, and so on- to make them flight-ready.”
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Auornis xui reconstructed image by Masato Hattori at this link
Archaeopteryx Fossil Image from this link