Remains of one of the world’s first birds that flew above the dinosaurs 120 million years ago have been unearthed in Japan.About the size of a pigeon, the creature had grey and brown feathers. It could shake its tail, and possibly flap its wings, according to scientists.Named Fukuipteryx prima, its remarkably preserved bones were found…
Remains of one of the world’s first birds that flew above the dinosaurs 120 million years ago have been unearthed in Japan.
About the size of a pigeon, the creature had grey and brown feathers. It could shake its tail, and possibly flap its wings, according to scientists.
Named Fukuipteryx prima, its remarkably preserved bones were found entombed in in rock that dates back to the Early Cretaceous period – which is when the first birds were starting to appear.
Fukuipteryx is the first primitive bird from this time found outside China, and it may force scientists to rethink some details in the evolution of flight.
Fukuipteryx prima was about the size of a pigeon and had grey and brown feathers. It could shake its tail, and possibly flap its wings
The bird is thought to have lived beside rivers and streams, and may have been preyed upon by pterosaurs and dinosaurs.
Significantly, the bird’s vertebrae are fused into a rod or ‘pygostyle’ – a triangular plate found at the end of the backbone to support tail feathers.
This is a fundamental feature of modern birds, but is absent in other early Cretaceous bird fossils, such as the Archaeopteryx, which was once dubbed the world’s first bird.
Lead author Dr Takuya Imai, of the Institute of Dinosaur Research at Fukui Prefectural University, Japan, said this means that Fukuipteryx ‘shook its tail feather.’
‘The bird inhabited a fluvial environment. The climate was temperate. The region was warm and humid most of the time, with a short, dry season,’ he said.
‘It is quite possible the bird was preyed upon. We don’t know about its diet, as we don’t have any gut contents. Its jaws were also missing.’
The remarkably preserved bones were found entombed in rock that dates back to the Early Cretaceous period, when real birds were first beginning to appear
Fukuipteryx was dug up at a quarry on the northern outskirts of the city of Katsuyama in central Japan – a well known dinosaur graveyard.
The discovery, reported in Communications Biology, sheds new light on the evolution of birds.
Previously, the earliest known Cretaceous bird fossils were two-dimensional specimens found in north-eastern China.
Dr Imai said: ‘These birds lack a pygostyle, a triangular plate found at the end of the backbone to support tail feathers, which is a fundamental feature of modern birds.
‘The pigeon sized Fukuipteryx was preserved in three dimensions and dates to the Early Cretaceous.
‘It is the first species of primitive bird from this time period found outside China.’
Scientists found the partial skeleton of the bird in Kitadani Dinosaur Quarry, a Lower Cretaceous formation near the city of Katsuyama in central Japan
He added: ‘This specimen, which lived during the Early Cretaceous around 120 million years ago, may increase our understanding of early bird evolution.’
Fukuipteryx shared several features with Archaeopteryx, including a strong wishbone, pelvis and forelimbs.
Archaeopteryx, found in Germany, was around during the Late Jurassic period, around 160 to 140 million years ago.
Although generally considered to be the first known bird, the characteristics associated with modern birds did not start appearing until the Cretaceous.
Archaeopteryx was a transitional animal between dinosaurs and modern birds, explained Prof Imai.
The vertebrae are fused into a rod or pygostyle as in modern birds – showing it was much more advanced than Archaeopteryx, once dubbed the world’s first bird
Apart from Archaeopteryx, primitive birds had previously been known only from the Early Cretaceous ecosystem in north eastern China known as the Jehol Biota.
Dr Imai said: ‘The discovery of Fukuipteryx further increases the geological distribution.
‘It appears they are not restricted to a relatively cold, highland environment in the Early Cretaceous of north-eastern China.’
They inhabited more temperate, lowland regions such as Fukui that was warmer. The first birds most likely were widespread around the globe, he said.
Dr Imai added: ‘Further exploration of the Early Cretaceous fossil birds outside East Asia are greatly needed to clarify the distribution of these first birds.
‘The evolution of flight-related apparatus may be more complex than previously thought, as illustrated by the very presence of a pygostyle in Fukuipteryx.’
WHAT DID THE ARCHAEOPTERYX DINOSAUR LOOK LIKE?
A raven sized creature that lived in southern Germany 150 million years ago was the ‘missing link’ between dinosaurs and birds, according to a study by researchers at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.
Archaeopteryx has been at the centre of a debate ever since it was first discovered more than 150 years ago.
Some scientists insist the creature was just another feathered dinosaur, but others say it was the first bird.
Artist’s impression of Archaeopteryx. A new analysis of the oldest and most complete specimen ever found has shed fresh light on the enigmatic animal – and found it was somewhere in between a dinosaur and a bird
Now an analysis of the oldest and most complete specimen ever found has shed fresh light on the enigmatic animal – and found it was somewhere in between.
Experts believe some of Archaeopteryx’s characteristics include:
- Some aerodynamic abilities based on its wings and feathers
- Light coloured feathers, possibly even white, with black tips.
- It was a carnivore and may have eaten small reptiles, amphibians, mammals and insects.
- It likely seized small prey with just its jaws, and may have used them to help pin larger prey.
- A full set of teeth (unlike living birds).
- A flat sternum (breastbone) and belly ribs.
- A long, bony tail.
- Three claws on the wing which could have been used to grasp prey.