The Dinohunters

A History of Dinosaur Hunting and Reconstruction

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Thursday, July 25, 2002

David Perlman, San Francisco Chronicle

The fossil remains of an ancient bird with a stomach full of seeds and a tail like a dinosaur's have been unearthed from a province in China famed as one of the richest treasure troves of the dinosaur era. Larger than a modern crow, the creature provides the first hint of what birds ate nearly 125 million years ago, and the length of its tail strengthens the evidence that all birds -- even today's -- are direct descendants of the dinosaurs, scientists say.

Zhonghe Zhou and Fucheng Zhang, paleontologists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, found the fossil remains in Liaoning province of Northeastern China. It's a region long noted for its wide varieties of dinosaur and bird fossils representing life during the Mesozoic era.

In the same western region of Laoning province, scientists have recently found the fossils of feathered birds called Confuciusornis that lived about 140 million years ago and had already developed bird-like short tails. They also found evidence of another tribe, called Sinornithosaurus and dating from about 124 million years ago, that was more strictly a meat-eating dinosaur but whose skin was covered with fibers much like feathers, although it certainly had no wings.

Now comes the full-fledged bird whose fossil Zhou and Zhong have discovered and describe in today's issue of the journal Nature. They have named it Jeholornis prima -- its genus name after Jehol, the name of the region under the Mongols nearly 1,000 years ago, and its species name after the primitive nature of the bird's tail.

They place its age at between 110 and 124 million years old. The bird had large, strong wings, a short, curved beak with few or no teeth, hook-like claws on its wings well adapted to flying as well as roosting in trees, and a bony tail nearly twice as long as its body, the Chinese scientists say.

To Garth Dyke, a fossil bird specialist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, its most significant feature is its tail -- structured in strikingly similar fashion to those of many short-legged, fast-running dinosaurs. "It's kind of a mosaic," Dyke said, "of dinosaur and bird characteristics, and that's pretty cool fresh evidence for the dinosaur ancestry of birds." Equally important, he said, are the 50 round seeds that Zhou and Zhang discerned in the fossil bird's stomach, Dyke said. "It's hardly surprising that a bird ate seeds, but this is the first real evidence we've had that the early birds were in fact seed-eaters," he said.