‘Strange’ dinosaur prompts rethinking of bird evolution

Fujianventure Miracle, A bird-like dinosaur discovered near Nanping, China, had unusually long legs and did not appear to be equipped for flight (artist’s impression).Credit: Mr. Chuang Zhao

One hundred and fifty million years ago, a tiny, bird-like dinosaur about the size of a bantam drowned in a swamp in what is now southeastern China, and gave up. Its fossilized remains, discovered in 2022 and named Fujianvenator is a miracleIt appears to be one of the oldest bird-like dinosaurs to date from the Jurassic period. The researchers describe their discovery in a paper published today in the journal nature1.

“This is a really strange animal in the avian group,” says Mark Lewin, a paleontologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, who was not involved in the discovery.

The creature had strangely skinny legs and may have lacked the ability to fly. It also seems inconsistent with the accepted story of bird evolution.

Although dinosaurs largely became extinct 66 million years ago, theropods, the group with three claws and hollow bones that included Velociraptor And tyrannosaurus rex, began to evolve into birds today. Many paleontologists consider the first bird to be a 150-million-year-old feathered dinosaur called Archeopteryxwhose fossils were found in Germany. But this study adds to the growing evidence that by the time ArcheopteryxDinosaurs did indeed diversify into different types of birds, Lewin says.

In the Jurassic period, bird-like dinosaurs may have occupied different ecological niches, says Hailu Yu, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and one of the paper’s co-authors. “The early development of birds is complex,” he says.

FujianventureThe dinosaur fossil lacks a complete head or tail, but its body and limbs show a mixture of features similar to those of other bird-like dinosaurs, such as the relative lengths of the fingers, and the details of the pelvis and vertebrae.

But it did not have many modifications that would contribute to flight. For example, it had a short shoulder blade and fingers that were more specialized for grasping. Strangest of all are the bird’s overly elongated hind legs, with the lower leg bone – the tibia – twice as long as the femur. Such long legs indicate a very skilled runner, possibly resembling a road runner (Geocoxix spp.), says Bhart Anjan Bhullar, a paleontologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Alternatively, those stilts could have been used for wading. in the area where Fujianventure The researchers also discovered a variety of swamp creatures, which they named Zhenghe animals. These fossils included fish, turtles, and other aquatic reptiles. The swamps were a previously unknown home for early birds. To find out if the bird’s legs were an adaptation to life in swamps or to running at high speed, researchers would need to examine the ends of its toes for signs of calluses, but those toes are poorly preserved. The authors write that both scenarios are equally possible.

The fact that the dinosaur was ever found was a stroke of luck. Researchers unearthed the fossil at a site near Nanping in Fujian Province, where no dinosaurs have been found before. Examples of bird-like dinosaurs from the late Jurassic period are rare because their hollow bones are brittle and not well preserved. Fossilization requires ideal conditions, such as the absence of oxygen, to prevent decay, which lakes or marshes can provide.

Because of the scarcity of fossils, Fujianventure This helps fill in some of the gaps in early bird development, Bhullar says. “Even in their early stages, the earliest fossils of birds varied in interesting ways.”

“There are many, many more of these things that haven’t been discovered,” he says. “We’ve only scratched the surface of the anatomical and lifestyle diversity of these animals.”

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