Jiandong Huang, Xia Wang, Yuanchao Hu, Jia Liu, Jennifer A. Peteya & Julia A. Clarke (2016)
A new ornithurine from the Early Cretaceous of China sheds light on the evolution of early ecological and cranial diversity in birds.
Despite the increasing number of exceptional feathered fossils discovered in the Late Jurassic and Cretaceous of northeastern China, representatives of Ornithurae, a clade that includes comparatively-close relatives of crown clade Aves (extant birds) and that clade, are still comparatively rare. Here, we report a new ornithurine species Changzuiornis ahgmi from the Early Cretaceous Jiufotang Formation. The new species shows an extremely elongate rostrum so far unknown in basal ornithurines and changes our understanding of the evolution of aspects of extant avian ecology and cranial evolution. Most of this elongate rostrum in Changzuiornis ahgmi is made up of maxilla, a characteristic not present in the avian crown clade in which most of the rostrum and nearly the entire facial margin is made up by premaxilla. The only other avialans known to exhibit an elongate rostrum with the facial margin comprised primarily of maxilla are derived ornithurines previously placed phylogenetically as among the closest outgroups to the avian crown clade as well as one derived enantiornithine clade. We find that, consistent with a proposed developmental shift in cranial ontogeny late in avialan evolution, this elongate rostrum is achieved through elongation of the maxilla while the premaxilla remains only a small part of rostral length. Thus, only in Late Cretaceous ornithurine taxa does the premaxilla begin to play a larger role. The rostral and postcranial proportions of Changzuiornis suggest an ecology not previously reported in Ornithurae; the only other species with an elongate rostrum are two marine Late Cretacous taxa interpreted as showing a derived picivorous diet.