While it’s not quite as awesome as the Jurassic Park validating dinosaur embryos discovered in April, this is pretty damn cool.
A newly discovered dinosaur from the middle-late Jurassic period gives scientists the best evidence yet of how birds evolved from dinosaurs, according to Nature.
The Aurornis xui, discovered by palaeontologists working on the Tiaojishan Formation in Liaoning province, appears to have had four wings, two along the arms and two along the legs, allowing it to glide but not fly. It lived about 150 million years ago, according to Pascal Godefroit, lead author and researcher at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.
Alan Turner, assistant professor of anatomical sciences at Stony Brook University in New York, who was not involved in the study, said in an e-mail that the find was “a very interesting fossil discovery.”
It demonstrates just how similar the earliest birds were to the earliest members of the dinosaur groups, dromaeosaurids and troodontids, Turner said. These groups are all theropods, small meat-eating dinosaurs that walked on two feet.
This discovery puts the Archaeopteryx’s position as “most primitive known bird” further in doubt, as the Aurornis xui appears to be older. Chinese scientists had previously argued that the Archaeopteryx was a dinosaur, not a type of bird.
Still, Aurornis xui’s exact position in its family tree is likely not set in stone, he said. The relationships between the earliest bird species and their dinosaur relatives can change in subtle ways depending on the data set being used by particular groups of researchers.
That means that species that were once called “birds” can become considered “troodontids,” or vice versa. The exact details are still being worked out, Turner said.
“That’s why new discoveries like Aurornis xui are both very exciting and frustrating because they often raise as many questions as they answer,” he said.
In other dinosaur news, a giant sauropod fossil has been unveiled in Liaoning province. This is the first time fossils of the giant herbivorous dinosaurs, which thrived during the late Jurassic period over 150 million years ago, have been exhibited to the public:
[Image credit: Masato Hattori, Nature]