The iconic Jurassic creature was covered in feathers yet retained the teeth, claws, and bony tail from its dinosaurian ancestry, known from at least 11 specimens that have been chipped from limestone quarries in Germany.
But was Archaeopteryx truly an early bird, or just one of many sorts of plumage-coated, non-avian dinosaurs? An archaic bird known as Aurornis xui, described this week in the journal Nature by paleontologist Pascal Godefroit and colleagues, is the latest entry in the debate over which animal qualifies as the first bird and how birds evolved.
The delicately preserved specimen, which includes fossil remnants of feathers, was discovered in the roughly 160-million-year-old rock of China’s Tiaojishan Formation. While Aurornis lived about ten million years earlier than Archaeopteryx, and very far from the prehistoric European archipelago that Archaeopteryx inhabited, the new study found that the two plumage-covered creatures were close relatives at the very base of bird evolution.
“It’s among the earliest birds, being it’s both older and apparently less ‘birdlike’ than Archaeopteryx along the ‘bird branch,'” says study co-author Andrea Cau of Italy’s Museo Geologico.