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Home > Research & Collections > News > Meet the New Species of Early Bird

Meet the New Species of Early Bird

Junornis houi flew over the heads of dinosaurs 125 million years ago

The fossilized remains of early bird Junornis houi, including its very long tail feathers. (At first glance it may appear that its head is missing, but it's off to the right.)


This little bird flew over the heads of dinosaurs 125 million years ago. And luckily for researchers, when it died it was beautifully preserved in layers of sediment. This amazing fossil, excavated in Inner Mongolia (China), was studied by a team including NHMLA Dinosaur Institute Director Luis Chiappe. The team concluded that it was a species new to science, belonging to an extinct group of birds (Enantiornithes) that thrived during the Age of Dinosaurs.

This fossil is particularly special because it has the outlines of the bird’s feathers, which is rare. By measuring the outlines of the wings and lengths of the feathers and wing bones, researchers were able to figure out how the bird likely flew around so many years ago. This bird, which measured about a foot long from the tip of its beak to the end of its exceptionally long tail feathers, likely used a flight style called bounding flight, which is how birds like blue jays or house sparrows (members of the passeriform family) fly today. They flap their wings quickly for a while, and then pull their wings close to their body for a moment. The study shows how many millions of years ago, early in the history of the group, birds evolved a variety of flight styles that closely resemble those of their living descendants.

A slab of rock was split in two to reveal the fossil of Junornis houi inside.

This fossilized bird is similar to other early birds known from this time period and location, but researchers determined it’s different enough to merit its own separate species, dubbed Junornis houi. The genus name Junornis comes from a combination of Jun — based on a Chinese character meaning beautiful — and ornis, which is Greek for bird. The species name houi honors Dr. Hou Lianhai and his important contributions to Chinese paleornithology — the study of bird fossils.

This discovery adds to the growing body of knowledge about the evolution of birds and helps answer some big questions about this group: How did birds evolve? How did flight evolve? And, does the early bird really get the worm?

The study is published in PLOS ONE.



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