This newfound birdlike dinosaur had surprisingly long legs

Fujianvenator prodigiosus may have run or waded in swamps

dinobird illustration

A newfound birdlike dinosaur called Fujianvenator prodigiosus (illustrated) may have lived on the ground in swamps, not high in the trees.

Chuang Zhao

Early birdlike dinosaurs are thought to have lived lofty lives up in the trees. But a newly discovered creature had surprisingly long legs that may have made for a life on the run.

The leggy birdlike dino (Fujianvenator prodigiosus) lived about 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, researchers report September 6 in Nature. That’s around the same time as its distant cousin Archaeopteryx, one of the earliest known birds (SN: 3/13/18).

“It looks quite similar to Archaeopteryx … except the legs,” says paleontologist Min Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. “Fujianvenator has really, really long legs.”

Wang and colleagues identified the creature as one of the earliest known avialans — a group that split off from the rest of dinosaurs and eventually became birds. The first avialans are key characters in the bird origin story. But little is known about them, Wang says, due to the scant diversity of fossils found.

dinobird fossil
Researchers discovered a fossilized Fujianvenator prodigiosus (shown from two views) in southern China. The scale bar is 20 millimeters.Min WangResearchers discovered a fossilized Fujianvenator prodigiosus (shown from two views) in southern China.M. Wang

Early avialans discovered so far, including Archaeopteryx, are generally short-limbed, apparently equipped for moving through the trees. Pheasant-sized F. prodigiosus’ lower leg bones were twice as long as its thigh bones, a trait not found among the other known birdlike dinosaurs.

Entombed amid mudstones and shales in what is now southeastern China, the creature’s bones were discovered alongside fossils of aquatic and semiaquatic species. Those clues indicate that F. prodigiosus inhabited a swamplike environment. It probably dashed after prey like today’s ostriches or waded through water like a primitive crane, Wang says.

The first avialans weren’t all tree dwellers, he says. “It’s not the full picture.”

Nikk Ogasa is a staff writer who focuses on the physical sciences for Science News. He has a master's degree in geology from McGill University, and a master's degree in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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