Working in the ancient lakebeds of what is now northeastern China, paleontologists have unearthed hundreds of fossil birds and more than a dozen species. Now the record of early avian life has gotten even richer. The new fossil, dubbed Jeholornis, is one of the most primitive birds ever discovered and has a peculiar tail that underscores the now-common theme of kinship with dinosaurs. So well-preserved is the turkey-sized specimen that even its last meal is plainly seen.
Haunted by memories of Archaeoraptor, a birdlike dinosaur from the same region that was shown to be a fake assembled from two creatures (Science, 14 April 2000, p. 238), paleontologists Zhonghe Zhou and Fucheng Zhang of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing took care to make sure that the new specimen was genuine. After examining how bones matched up between the several slabs, they conclude in the 25 July issue of Nature that "the possibility of a composite specimen ... can be ruled out." Zhou and Zhang note that, unlike Archaeoraptor, the new specimen was completely prepared in the lab.
What makes Jeholornis unique among birds from the early Cretaceous is its tail. Birds usually have short tails tipped by vertebrae fused into a rodlike pygostyle. In contrast, the 42-centimeter tail of Jeholornis consists of individual bones, just like a dinosaur's tail. This kind of tail also adorns the end of the most famous fossil bird, the 145-million-year-old Archaeopteryx from Germany, as well as that of Rahonavis from the late Cretaceous of Madagascar. Finding a third example in China shows how far-flung such long-tailed early birds were, says paleontologist Cathy Forster of the State University of New York, Stony Brook.
Jeholornis also has something to say about what fueled its airtime. Inside its chest cavity lie the fossils of more than 50 undigested seeds, about the size of watermelon seeds. That's a new item on the menu of Cretaceous birds, which were only known to eat fish and crustaceans. "The main importance is that it increases our knowledge of the ecological diversity of early Cretaceous birds," says paleontologist Tom Holtz of the University of Maryland, College Park. Adds would-be time traveler Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County: "Bird watching back then would have been a lot of fun."
Overview of the bird fossil record
Archaeopteryx and the Origin of Birds, lecture notes by Holtz
Description of fossil bird from the same deposits as Jeholornis
A dissection of the Archaeoraptor forgery