October 20, 1995

Earliest beaked bird fossil found

By Roger Martin

The world's earliest beaked bird has been discovered in a Chinese province northeast of Beijing, according to a story in the Oct. 19 issue of Nature magazine.

The bird, called Confuciusornis sanctus, or "the holy Confucius' bird," first flew in the late Jurassic Period, according to the Nature report, written by a team of four investigators that includes KU paleontologist Larry Dean Martin. Until this discovery, it was thought that the only bird species to exist in the Jurassic, which fell between 195 million and 140 million years ago, was Archaeopteryx.

Archaeopteryx was a beakless bruiser with about 80 teeth shaped like an alligator's and just as sharp.

"These findings have revolutionized our thinking about birds," Martin said. "It turns out that birds, not long after their origin, diversified into two major groups."

In addition to its beak and toothlessness, Confucius' bird shows another sign of modernity, "the first direct evidence of body feathers on a bird," Martin said.

The only feathers found in conjunction with Archaeopteryx were from the wings.

Despite these hints of things to come, Confucius' bird went extinct. "It's a bird that modernized its head, but it didn't lead to today's bird," Martin said.

The skeleton behind the head of Confucius' bird is more like that of Archaeopteryx than of contemporary birds. Like Archaeopteryx, it possessed long fingers and claws on its wings to fill a special need.

"Archaeopteryx couldn't fly very well," Martin says, "unless it jumped off something. It probably had to climb trees."

Nevertheless, in the innovations represented in Confucius' bird, Mother Nature was onto something.

About 70 million years after Confuciusornis went extinct, nature again produced beaked birds. This time the new wrinkle worked, with beaked birds relegating the toothy ones to the trash bin of paleontological history.

"Evolution teaches us that there are lots of false starts," Martin said. The Nature article describes the few remains - a skull, a wing, two feathered legs, a pelvis - of the Jurassic bird.

The remains were discovered by a Chinese farmer in Liaoning Province, Martin said.

He said, "The farmers have discovered they can sell fossil insects from the area, and they're massively digging it up."

The farmer who found the remains brought them to a nearby archaeological museum, which bought them, Martin said.

Then a Chinese paleontologist, Lianhai Hou, and Zhonghe Zhou, who is now one of Martin's graduate students, were scouting around Liaoning Province.

They were looking for bird fossils from the Cretaceous Period, which followed on the heels of the Jurassic and lasted till about 65 million years ago, when they saw the remains of Confucius' bird in the archaeological museum.

Martin said they saw to its transfer to the Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.

Last October, the two Chinese investigators visited Lawrence to consult with Martin about the remains. "That led to the first effort to do a description of the bird," said Martin, and, eventually, the Nature article.

The fourth author is Allen Feduccia, Heninger professor of biology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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