for National Geographic News
Fossil experts in China have unearthed a 110-million-year-old bird that is strikingly similar to today's birds, considering that it lived alongside dinosaurs.
The ducklike diver, known to science as Gansus yumenensis, shows advanced features not common in the fossil record until much more recently.
The discovery supports the view that key characteristics of modern birds evolved quickly and early, long before the demise of the dinosaurs.
It is also indirect evidence that the common ancestor of all today's birds was, like Gansus, adapted to an aquatic lifestyle.
Chinese and American paleontologists located the exquisitely preserved remains in mudstone slabs formed by sediments deposited on an ancient lake bottom.
A team led by Hai-lu You, of Beijing's Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, made the discovery about 1,240 miles (2,000 kilometers) west of Beijing in the province of Gansu (China map).
Because the bones were buried gently and slowly in mud, many of them remain uncrushed. Soft tissues were also preserved, including flight feathers and webbinglike a duck'sbetween the bird's toes.
Gansus had been known previously from a single fossil foot, discovered at the same location in 1981. Fieldwork in 2003 and 2004 yielded some 50 new bird specimens, most of which appear to be Gansus.
Five of the recently discovered skeletons, virtually complete from the neck down, are described in detail in a paper by You and his colleagues, to be published in tomorrow's edition of the journal Science.
Almost a Duck
It may have looked like a duck and acted like a duck, but Gansus was no duck.
Study co-author Jerald Harris is director of paleontology at Dixie State College in St. George, Utah.
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES