Archaeopteryx is a bird after all - just not the first

By James Maynard , May 29, 2013 05:03 PM EDT

Archaeopteryx, one of the most famous of all creatures having features of both birds and dinosaurs, is a bird after all, according to a new paper released in the journal Nature on May 29.

For 150 years, this strange extinct creature from 150 million years ago was thought of as the world's first bird. Two years ago, many paleontologists relegated to a class of winged dinosaurs. Now, Archaeopteryx is back on its perch as a bird, but maybe not the first one. Say hello to Aurornis xui.

Chinese researchers, led by paleontologist Xing Xu, said in 2011 that they found fossils belonging to a new species of feathered dinosaur with a body design much Archaeopteryx. This new species, the researchers argued, showed that Archaeopteryx was also a winged dinosaur and not a bird.

Now, a different Chinese research team has announced that they have found their own new species, called Aurornis xui. When the paleontologists looked at how this new species, ten million years older than Archaeopteryx, was related to other animal varieties, they found that the better-known species was a primitive bird, and not just a bird-like dinosaur.

"We can show that Archaeopteryx was in fact a primitive bird, and the little beast that we found [is] an even more primitive one," Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences said. "For the time being, this [new species] is the oldest bird known to Man." Godefroit is the researcher who named the new fossil.

Aurornis xui was about 20 inches in length, and was likely a swift runner. From its small teeth, it is believed the species ate insects. Aurornis had a bird-like pelvis, but also had a long tail and skull features like a dinosaur.

Godefroit considers Aurornis to have enough features in common with avians to be considered a bird. His team has also concluded that the new species was an ancestor of Archaeopteryx, meaning that species was a bird as well. Not everyone is convinced.

"This is very birdlike, but it is not yet a bird," paleontologist Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County said.

The first Archaeopteryx fossil was discovered in Bavaria in 1861. Surprisingly, this find was made less than two years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species.

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