A Deep Dive Into the Skeleton of the Oldest-Known Modern Bird

A fossil found in China may offer new clues about avian evolution

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About 130 million years ago, when pterosaurs still dominated the skies, the bird whose fossil remains are pictured here waded along a lakeshore in northeast China. To paleontologists this ten-inch-tall specimen, recently studied by Min Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues, is a giant step forward because it represents the oldest example ever discovered of a modern-looking bird. The bird had fanned tail feathers, fused clavicles (creating a wishbone) and an alula, a wing feature that improves maneuverability during flight. To be sure, it’s not the oldest bird; that distinction still belongs to Archaeopteryx, which dates to 150 million years ago and is celebrated for showing that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Still, Archaeopteryx itself led to an evolutionary dead end, with no descendants alive today. The new species, Archaeornithura meemannae, belonged to the group that gave rise to modern birds, and pushes back their earliest known appearance by five million years.

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