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CNN: Fossil of oldest beaked bird discovered


Fossil of oldest beaked bird discovered
June 16, 1999
Web posted at: 9:46 p.m. EDT (0146 GMT)

(AP) -- Paleontologists have found a fossil of the oldest known bird
                   species with a beak -- an upturned bill resembling
Woody Woodpecker's. 

The 130 million-year-old, crow-sized Confuciusornis dui was discovered
last year in ancient lake sediment in China, so exquisitely preserved
that impressions of its feathers are clearly visible. 

Previously, the earliest known toothless, beaked bird dated from about
70 million years ago. 

The skull of the Confuciusornis dui fascinated -- and amused --
scientists.  The beak resembles that of classic cartoon character Woody

The creature's beak was an advanced trait for its time, coming only 10
million to 15 million years after the first known bird -- the toothy,
reptile-like Archaeopteryx -- during the Jurassic Period. The
Archaeopteryx had a reptilian snout rather than a beak of horn-like

 The back end of the Confuciusornis dui's skull is primitive, with two
openings behind the eyes that are a throwback to dinosaurs. 

"What you've got is a modern car engine hood on the rear end of a Model
T," said Larry D. Martin, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the
University of Kansas' Museum of Natural History. He helped analyze the

This combination of primitive and advanced traits suggests that early
bird evolution was more complex than previously thought and included
many species that didn't succeed. 

 "This is showing a diversity we didn't know about before. It's not like
you have this sort of straight-line evolution from one to another and
each one getting more specialized," said Storrs L. Olson, curator of
birds at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian

Sankar Chatterjee, a professor of geology at Texas Tech University in
Lubbock, agreed: "The story is much more complex. Evolution is not
really like a ladder. It's more like a bush." 

The bird is described in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature. It was
analyzed by American scientists and a team from the Chinese Academy of

Scientists believe the bird flew well and took off by scaling trees and

Confuciusornis (kahn-FYOO-shus-OR-nis) dui is the smallest species found
to date of the order named for the Chinese philosopher. The birds became
extinct 120 million years ago and probably didn't lead to modern birds. 

Hundreds of specimens of a larger species of Confuciusornis have also
been found at the site, but all lacked intact skulls. Researchers
believe the birds fell victim to volcanic eruptions that preserved their

Flying Goat Graphics
(Society of Vertebrate Paleontology member)