The oldest known relative of all birds alive today has just been unearthed in northeastern China.
The ultimate early bird, Archaeornithura meemannae, lived 130.7 million years ago -- pushing back the evolutionary record of modern birds by around 6 million years.
At 145 million years old, Archaeopteryx is still the oldest and most primitive known bird, but it has no living descendants. A. meemannae, on the other hand, has been placed in the clade Ornithuromorpha, which is the same evolutionary branch that gave rise to all bird species currently living. It's described in the latest issue of the journal Nature Communications.
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The newly found bird looked "nearly" like today's shorebirds, senior author Zhonghe Zhou told Discovery News, although A. meemannae "could have been preyed upon by carnivorous dinosaurs."
Zhou is director of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He and his colleagues analyzed the remains of the bird, represented by two very well-preserved specimens.
"Its forelimbs were shorter than its hind limbs, which is quite unusual," lead author Min Wang said.
Because of its long legs and other anatomy, the researchers think the ancient bird spent much of its time near the shores of a lake, patrolling the area looking for insects and other small prey to eat. To this day, long-legged birds like cranes and herons have a somewhat similar lifestyle.
It sported feathers and was capable of flight, yet its wings were short, so the scientists think the bird had a mostly terrestrial existence.
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Feathered dinosaurs lived during the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods in China, with only some evolving to become birds like A. meemannae. Scientists haven't pinpointed which dinosaurs are the direct ancestors to birds, but possible candidates are dromaeosaurids, troodontids and scansoriopterygids, Wang and Zhou said.
Such dinosaurs "probably lived in a forest environment," according to Zhou, and were "climbing, jumping and gliding." These feats were possible, in part, since the dinosaurs had feathered or bat-like wings.