‘Strange’ New Prehistoric Bird Discovered in China and Named for David Attenborough

The proto-bird lived some 120 million years ago and did not have teeth—a trait more similar to birds of today than to birds of its time—sharpening scientists’ understanding of avian evolution

an illustration of a small bird in profile with its wings up, a spotted chest and blue chin, in front of a drawing of bird bones
An illustration of the fossil skeleton of the new bird species Imparavis attenboroughi and a reconstruction of what the animal would have looked like in flight. © Ville Sinkkonen

A newly discovered species of prehistoric bird that lived 120 million years ago is shedding light on how modern birds evolved from their dinosaur ancestors, according to a study published last week in the journal Cretaceous Research.

The scientists who discovered the novel species gave it a name that highlights its uniqueness and pays tribute to the British naturalist David Attenborough: Imparavis attenboroughi, which means “Attenborough’s strange bird” in Latin.

What intrigues researchers is that the proto-bird lacked teeth. While no birds have teeth today, this characteristic made the species abnormal among its contemporaries, as most prehistoric birds still had teeth and claws.

Imparavis falls under an extinct avian group called enantiornithines, or “opposite birds,” so-called because their shoulder joints featured characteristics “opposite” those of modern birds. The species is the earliest known bird of this kind to have no teeth, per the study.

“Before Imparavis, toothlessness in this group of birds was known to occur around 70 million years ago,” study co-author Alex Clark, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, tells CNN’s Ashley Strickland. “With Imparavis, it turns out it occurred nearly 48 million years earlier. Today, all birds lack teeth. But back in the Mesozoic, toothed little mouths were the norm. If you saw one without teeth, it’d be the oddball—and that’s what Imparavis was.”

Found by an amateur fossil hunter near the village of Toudaoyingzi in northeastern China, the bird skeleton stood out to Jingmai O’Connor, a co-author of the paper and associate curator of fossil reptiles at the Chicago Field Museum, when she saw it at the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature in Linyi, China.

“I think what drew me to the specimen wasn’t its lack of teeth—it was its forelimbs,” O’Connor says in a statement. “It had a giant bicipital crest—a bony process jutting out at the top of the upper arm bone, where muscles attach. I’d seen crests like that in Late Cretaceous birds, but not in the Early Cretaceous like this one. That’s when I first suspected it might be a new species.”

man looking through microscope in black and white
Study co-author Alex Clark examines the Imparavis attenboroughi fossil in the lab. Alex Clark

O’Connor asked Clark to examine the fossils in early 2023, launching the investigation into this quirky bird. Beyond the lack of teeth, he found the species had independently moving “fingers,” a common trait in enantiornithines. And the unusual forelimbs, or wing bones, of Imparavis were another remarkable feature of its anatomy. These may have allowed for extra muscle attachments, increasing the power of the wings’ downward stroke.

“We’re potentially looking at really strong wing beats,” Clark says in the statement. “Some features of the bones resemble those of modern birds like puffins or murres, which can flap crazy fast, or quails and pheasants, which are stout little birds but produce enough power to launch nearly vertically at a moment’s notice when threatened.”

Still, the team can only speculate about the specifics of Imparavis’ lifestyle. For example, its toothless beak does little to narrow down what it may have eaten, as modern birds without teeth still exhibit a wide variety in their diets.

And unlike modern birds, Imparavis did not possess a gizzard, an organ that helps break up food for digestion in the absence of teeth. Some birds ingest grit—such as little stones, sand or shells—to help pulverize food, but the new species didn’t, per CNN, leaving its method of digestion a mystery.

As for how it obtained food, Imparavis may have resembled robins in the way that they hop along the ground to forage.

“The differences in the forelimb structure of Imparavis suggests that even though it still probably lived in the trees, it maybe ventured down to the ground to feed, and that might mean it had a unique diet compared to other enantiornithines, which also might explain why it lost its teeth,” O’Connor says in the statement.

Another central question that remains is why the enantiornithines, the most diverse group of birds, died out along with the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, while the ornithuromorphs, the direct ancestors of modern birds, survived. But with further research of new specimens, the team hopes to uncover more details about the evolutionary path from prehistoric to modern birds.

Clark cites David Attenborough’s documentaries as the spark for his early fascination with natural science—and the reason he named the species after the famous naturalist.

“In some form, [Attenborough has] either shaped people’s perspective on the natural world, or he’s been this huge voice for waking up to the issues that are happening globally with the planet,” Clark tells Erica Thompson of the Chicago Sun Times.

Attenborough commented on the tribute: “It is a great honor to have one’s name attached to a fossil, particularly one as spectacular and important as this,” he says in the statement. “It seems the history of birds is more complex than we knew.”

The prehistoric bird joins the ranks of dozens of species named after the naturalist, from a semi-slug called Attenborougharion rubicundus to the rare Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna. (He even has a research vessel named in his honor.)

For the team, the name is only part of the tribute—they say the work they do also speaks to Attenborough’s message of the importance of conservation.

“The biggest crisis humanity is facing is the sixth mass extinction, and paleontology provides the only evidence we have for how organisms respond to environmental changes and how animals respond to the stress of other organisms going extinct,” O’Connor says in the statement.

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