LOS ANGELES – The famous winged and feathered fossil Archaeopteryx has been knocked off its perch as the oldest known bird by a newly discovered Chinese relative that has been dubbed Xiaotingia zhengi, according to new research. Instead, Archaeopteryx was most likely a dinosaur.
Archaeopteryx, discovered in Germany in 1861, lived during the late Jurassic period – about 150 million years ago. On the basis of its part-bird, part-reptile features, paleontologists placed it in the avialan family, which includes the earliest ancestors of birds. Avialans are related to deinonychosaurs – bird-like dinosaurs such as Anchiornis and Microraptor – that lived during the late Jurassic and subsequent Cretaceous periods.
The new report, authored by Xing Xu, a paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, and colleagues described the anatomy of the newly found Xiaotingia, a two-pound creature with feathers, sharp claws, fewer than 10 teeth and a small shallow snout like Archaeopteryx. It may have lived in the western Liaoning region in China during the late Jurassic period, the authors reported online Wednesday in the journal Nature.
The paleontologists then built a family tree of Archaeopteryx, Xiaotingia, avialans and deinonychosaurs by comparing features of the ancient creatures’ anatomy. They noted that the skulls of Archaeopteryx and Xiaotingia were very different than those of the early birds and far more similar to those of deinonychosaurs. Based on this and an analysis of other traits, such as structure of the pelvis, toes and legs, they concluded that Archaeopteryx was a deinonychosaur, not an early bird.
But other experts said the case for shifting Archaeopteryx from bird to dinosaur status is not yet written in stone.