Remarkable Discovery: Paleontologists Unearth 119-Million-Year-Old Beaked Bird Fossil, Shedding New Light on Avian Evolutionary History

A new species of confuciusornithid bird being named Confuciusornis shifan has been identified from a nearly complete skeleton found in northeastern China.

Life reconstruction of Confuciusornis shifan. Image credit: Paleontological Museum of Liaoning.

Confuciusornis shifan lived in what is now China during the Early Cretaceous epoch, some 119 million years ago.

Confuciusornis: Most Up-to-Date Encyclopedia, News & Reviews

The new species belonged to Confuciusornis, a genus of extinct crow-sized beaked birds in the family Confuciusornithidae.

Confuciusornis shifan weighed less than 200 grams and was smaller than most other confuciusornithid species.

“Confuciusornithidae is a clade of Early Cretaceous pygostylian birds known from the Jehol Biota of East Asia, and represents the earliest known toothless, beaked birds,” said Shenyang Normal University paleontologists Dongyu Hu and Xing Xu and their colleagues from China and Canada.

Image

“Five genera and eleven species, recovered from the Dabeigou, Yixian and Jiufotang formations, have been described and assigned to this family, though the validity of some species is questionable.”

Palatal view of the skull of Confuciusornis feducciai (a), pelvic... | Download Scientific Diagram

“They are represented by thousands of exceptionally preserved specimens that collectively provide rich information on confuciusornithid morphology, taxonomy, flight ability, growth, diet, and ecology.”

The nearly complete and mostly articulated skeleton, preserved on a single slab, of Confuciusornis shifan was recovered from the Jiufotang Formation near Xiaotaizi village in the Chinese province of Liaoning.

Skeleton and anatomy of Confuciusornis sanctus [= 'Confuciusornis... | Download Scientific Diagram

“Compared to other confuciusornithids, this new species and the recently reported Yangavis confucii both show evidence of stronger flight capability, although the wings of the two species differ from one another in many respects,” the researchers said.

“Our aerodynamic analyses under phylogeny indicate that varying modes of flight adaptation emerged across the diversity of confuciusornithids, and to a lesser degree over the course of their ontogeny, and specifically suggest that both a trend towards improved flight capability and a change in flight strategy occurred in confuciusornithid evolution.”

Gender identification of the Mesozoic bird Confuciusornis sanctus | Nature Communications

Confuciusornis shifan differs most saliently from other Mesozoic birds in having an extra cushion-like bone in the first digit of the wing, a highly unusual feature that may have helped to meet the functional demands of flight at a stage when skeletal growth was still incomplete,” they concluded.

“The new find strikingly exemplifies the morphological, developmental and functional diversity of the first beaked birds.”

The team’s paper was published this month in the journal Communications Biology.

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