Oldest known avian relative of today’s birds found in China

Fossils push branch of avian family tree back to 130 million years ago

ancient species of wading bird

WATER WADER  An ancient species of wading bird (illustrated) that lived about 130 million years ago is the oldest known avian relative of modern birds.

Zongda Zhang

Two partial skeletons unearthed in northeastern China have dashed the record for the oldest avian relatives of today’s birds.

The remains belonged to a species, Archaeornithura meemannae, that lived 130.7 million years ago — about 6 million years earlier than the previous record holders. Fossil hunters discovered bones of the hummingbird-sized creatures embedded in siltstone slabs in what may have once been a lake. Stubby feathers stipple the ancient birds’ bodies, except for some spots on the legs. These bald patches hint that the animals once waded through watery homes, suggest Chinese Academy of Sciences paleontologist Min Wang and colleagues May 5 in Nature Communications

FEATHERED FOSSIL Partial skeletons of the most ancient avian ancestor of today’s birds reveal a small feathered creature that may have lived in a semiaquatic environment. M. Wang et al/Nature Communications

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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