Shake your tail feather: Strange pigeon-sized bird that flew above the dinosaurs 120 million years ago is unearthed in Japan – and it could rewrite the history of flight
- Fukuipteryx prima could shake its tail and possibly flap its wings
- Its remains were entombed in rock that dates back to the Early Cretaceous
- The bird’s remarkably preserved bones have been captured in 3D
- It was much more advanced than the ‘world’s first bird’ Archaeopteryx
One of the world’s first birds that flew above the dinosaurs 120 million years ago has been unearthed in Japan.
About the size of a pigeon, the creature had grey and brown feathers. It could shake its tail, and possibly flap its wings.
Named Fukuipteryx prima, its remarkably preserved bones were found entombed in rock that date back to the Early Cretaceous.
This is the period when real birds were beginning to appear. Fukuipteryx is the first primitive bird from this time found outside China.
It lived beside rivers and streams and may have been preyed upon by pterosaurs and dinosaurs.
Fukuipteryx prima was about the size of a pigeon and had grey and brown feathers. It could shake its tail, and possibly flap its wings
Significantly, the vertebrae are fused into a rod or ‘pygostyle’ – a triangular plate found at the end of the backbone to support tail feathers, which is a fundamental feature of modern birds.
This shows that Fukuipteryx prima was much more advanced than Archaeopteryx -which was once dubbed the world’s first bird.
Lead author Dr Takuya Imai, of the Institute of Dinosaur Research at Fukui Prefectural University, Japan, said this means the bird “shook its tail feather.”
He said: “It did not fly as well as modern birds do. It glided or flapped to fly for a short distance. It did fly, but it was not very good at it.
“The bird inhabited a fluvial environment. The climate was temperate. The region was warm and humid most of the time, with a short, dry season.
“It is quite possible the bird was preyed upon. We don’t know about its diet, as we don’t have any gut contents. Its jaws were also missing.”
Fukuipteryx shared several features with Archaeopteryx including a strong wishbone, pelvis and forelimbs – but also had a fully-formed pygostyle.
The remarkably preserved bones were found entombed in rock that dates back to the Early Cretaceous period, when real birds were first beginning to appear
This is a “fundamental feature of modern birds”, said Dr Imai. The discovery reported in Communications Biology is a vital addition to the bird tree of life.
It also sheds fresh light on the evolution of one of the world’s most popular animals, say the researchers.
Dr Imai said: “Previous research has suggested the pygostyle is one of the key flight adaptations in the early evolution of birds.”
But his team believe the presence of the pygostyle in Fukuipteryx backs recent theories it was a byproduct of tail reduction – and unrelated to flight adaptation.
Archaeopteryx, found in Germany, was around during the Late Jurassic between about 160 to 140 million.
Although generally considered to be the first known bird, the characteristics associated with modern birds did not start appearing until the Cretaceous.
Archaeopteryx was a transitional fossil between dinosaurs and modern birds, explained Prof Imai.
Scientists found the partial skeleton of the bird in Kitadani Dinosaur Quarry, a Lower Cretaceous formation near the city of Katsuyama in central Japan
Fukuipteryx was dug up at a quarry on the northern outskirts of the city of Katsuyama in central Japan – a well known dinosaur graveyard.
Dr Imai said: “This specimen, which lived during the Early Cretaceous around 120 million years ago, may increase our understanding of early bird evolution.”
The earliest known Cretaceous bird fossils are two-dimensional specimens found in north-eastern China.
Dr Imai said: “These birds lack a pygostyle, a triangular plate found at the end of the backbone to support tail feathers, which is a fundamental feature of modern birds.”
“The pigeon sized Fukuipteryx was preserved in three dimensions and dates to the Early Cretaceous.
“It is the first species of primitive bird from this time period found outside China.”
He added: “The Early Cretaceous basal birds were known largely from just two-dimensionally preserved specimens from north-eastern China, which has hindered our understanding of the early evolution of birds.
“Here, we present a three-dimensionally-preserved skeleton (FPDM-V-9769) of a bird from the Early Cretaceous of Fukui, central Japan.”
The vertebrae are fused into a rod or pygostyle as in modern birds – showing it was much more advanced than Archaeopteryx, once dubbed the world’s first bird
Apart from Archaeopteryx, primitive birds had previously been known only from the Early Cretaceous ecosystem in north eastern China known as the Jehol Biota.
Dr Imai said: “The discovery of Fukuipteryx further increases the geological distribution.
“It appears they are not restricted to a relatively cold, highland environment in the Early Cretaceous of north-eastern China.”
They inhabited more temperate, lowland regions such as Fukui that was warmer. The first birds most likely were widespread around the globe, he said.
Dr Imai said: “Further exploration of the Early Cretaceous fossil birds outside East Asia are greatly needed to clarify the distribution of these first birds.
“The evolution of *ight-related apparatus may be more complex than previously thought, as illustrated by the very presence of a pygostyle in Fukuipteryx.
“Overall, this study demonstrates that further exploratory efforts in the Early Cretaceous sediments, where the occurrence of avian skeletons is limited to none, are important to increase our understanding of the Early Cretaceous birds.”
WHAT DID THE ARCHAEOPTERYX DINOSAUR LOOK LIKE?
A raven sized creature that lived in southern Germany 150 million years ago was the ‘missing link’ between dinosaurs and birds, according to a study by researchers at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.
Archaeopteryx has been at the centre of a debate ever since it was first discovered more than 150 years ago.
Some scientists insist the creature was just another feathered dinosaur, but others say it was the first bird.
Artist’s impression of Archaeopteryx. A new analysis of the oldest and most complete specimen ever found has shed fresh light on the enigmatic animal – and found it was somewhere in between a dinosaur and a bird
Now an analysis of the oldest and most complete specimen ever found has shed fresh light on the enigmatic animal – and found it was somewhere in between.
Experts believe some of Archaeopteryx’s characteristics include:
- Some aerodynamic abilities based on its wings and feathers
- Light coloured feathers, possibly even white, with black tips.
- It was a carnivore and may have eaten small reptiles, amphibians, mammals and insects.
- It likely seized small prey with just its jaws, and may have used them to help pin larger prey.
- A full set of teeth (unlike living birds).
- A flat sternum (breastbone) and belly ribs.
- A long, bony tail.
- Three claws on the wing which could have been used to grasp prey.
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