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Confuciusornis (Wikimedia Commons)


Confuciusornis (Greek for "Confucius bird"); pronounced con-FEW-shus-OR-nis


Woodlands of Asia

Historical Period:

Early Cretaceous (130-120 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About one foot long and less than a pound


Probably seeds

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Beak, primitive feathers, curved foot claws


About Confuciusornis:

One of a series of spectacular Chinese fossil discoveries made over the past 20 or so years, Confuciusornis was a true find: the first identified prehistoric bird with a true beak (a subsequent discovery, of the earlier, similar Eoconfuciusornis, was made a few years later). Unlike other flying creatures of its era, Confuciusornis had no teeth--which, along with its feathers and curved claws suited for sitting high up in trees, makes it one of the most unmistakably birdlike creatures of the Cretaceous period. (This arboreal habit didn't spare it from predation, however; recently, paleontologists unearthed the fossil of a much bigger dino-bird, Sinocalliopteryx, harboring the remains of three Confuciusornis specimens in its gut!)

However, just because Confuciusornis looked like a modern bird doesn't mean it's the great-great-grandfather (or grandmother) of every pigeon, eagle and owl living today. There's no reason primitive flying reptiles couldn't have independently evolved birdlike characteristics such as feathers and beaks--so the Confucius Bird may well have a been a striking "dead end" in avian evolution. (In a new development, researchers have determined--based on an analysis of preserved pigment cells--that the feathers of Confuciusornis were arranged in a mottled pattern of black, brown and white patches, a bit like a tabby cat.)


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