Discovery of new bird species in China, oldest beak shows evolution complexity

(Embargoed) CHAPEL HILL - Working together on fossilized remains, Chinese and U.S. researchers have discovered a previously unknown species of primitive bird, a finding that offers new evidence that early bird evolution was considerably more complex than previously believed.

In the process, the scientists have identified on its nearly complete skeleton, the world's oldest surviving horny beak, part of a fossil dating back some 130 million years. They also say they've added more weight to the argument that birds descended not from dinosaurs, but rather from unknown earlier reptile ancestors.

"One of the really interesting things about these discoveries is that they unexpectedly and vividly show that birds had already diversified by the late Jurassic-early Cretaceous period," said Dr. Alan Feduccia, chair of biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "The oldest known bird, Archaeopteryx, which dates to 150 million years ago, had no beak, but rather a very reptilian jaw with teeth."

A report on the discovery appears in the June 17 issue of Nature, a British science journal. Besides Feduccia, authors are Drs. Lianhai Hou and Fucheng Zhang of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and Larry D. Martin and Zhonghe Zhou of the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

The researchers have named the new species Confuciusornis dui in honor of Wenya Du, the man who collected the specimen near the edge of a lake in northeast China's Liaoning Province and donated it to the Beijing institute. It is a smaller but close relative of Confuciusornis sanctus, another crow-like bird of the same age the researchers found and reported in Nature in 1995.

Because hundreds of specimens of C. sanctus now have been found in the same area, volcanic eruptions likely killed them along the lakeshore instantaneously and froze them in time, Feduccia

Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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