National Geographic Daily News
A prehistoric bird with two tails.

A reconstruction of a two-tailed 120-million-year-old Jeholornis.

Illustration courtesy Aijuan Shi

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published October 7, 2013

The early bird gets two tails? A 120-million-year-old bird sported a long tail and a second, unexpected tail frond, paleontologists suggest. The discovery points to a complicated evolutionary path for the tails we see in birds today.

One of the oldest known birds, Jeholornis, lived in what is today China, along with a trove of other feathered dinosaurs discovered in the region over the last decade. It was also thought to sport only a long fan-feathered tail at its back end. Now, however, paleontologists are claiming discovery of a second tail frond adorning the bird. (See "Did Feathered Dinosaurs Shake Their Tail Feathers?")

"The 'two-tail' plumage of Jeholornis is unique," according to the study, which was led by Jingmai O’Connor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. The report of the discovery of the tail frond was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Of 11 Jeholornis fossils that retain evidence of ancient plumage, 6 have signs of this frond of 11 feathers, which would have jutted above the bird's back at a jaunty, upright angle in a "visually striking" manner, according to the study.

Two-Tailed Display

"Clearly the display aspect of the frond would have been undeniable," says paleontologist Mark Norell, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who was not part of the study. "It calls to mind living birds, even peacocks, which display broad plumes of feathers."

In peacocks and other birds, such feathery features are more for attracting the attention of potential mates than for any functional purpose.

Since male birds today are the ones with the striking plumage, the authors suggest that perhaps only one sex of Jeholornis sported the eye-catching tail fronds.

Early Aviation Advantage?

Jeholornis is not thought to be directly related to modern birds, which seem to have evolved from a different line of early avians. The study authors suggest that the tail frond may have played a stabilizing role in the flight of these early birds and that if the arrangement of feathers had proven advantageous enough, modern birds might have evolved to sport such two-tailed features. They see the fronds as flattening to offer a streamlined appearance when the bird was in flight.

Other researchers aren't convinced the newly discovered tail frond played much of a role in aviation, however.

"Feathering in the new specimens is quite interesting, but we have to remember it is a feature so far only known in one species," says University of Texas paleontologist Julia Clarke, who adds the frond wasn't seen in all the fossils.

"Thus, its implications for the origin of flight are unclear," she says. "It could have been a peculiarity of the one species, as the authors note."

Perhaps more likely, she suggests the frond simply evolved as an easy-to-notice "sexual display" flaunted by these early birds.

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

36 comments
Emil Guevara Bastidas
Emil Guevara Bastidas

Me gustaria que sus publicaciones fueran en idioma español para el publico latino, muchas gracias

Mako Tamura
Mako Tamura

"Hum, Hum!, What a comfortable day!  I'm with Green leaves, Peaceful trees.

Oh, my marvelous body with orange head, oops, orange hat! Yep, orange hat.

Let's enjoy our lives, Hum, Hum."

Daniel Hughes
Daniel Hughes

from the artist's sketch it looks like a rudder to me

Jawed Ahmad
Jawed Ahmad

Great discovery, now it look we come into dinosaur period!

Bob Xiong
Bob Xiong

goddanm! i thought this bird itself was recently discovered... would've been awesome

S. Amon
S. Amon

Is it possible to buy a printed photo of this incredible bird?

El Gabilon
El Gabilon

This discovery and others like it indicate that there is much more that we have to learn about the planet we live on.  There are many places where humans have never set foot, and animals we have never seen. Our search for new species etc., should be tempered with care that we do not in our search open up territories that will induce other humans to enter, and by so doing destroy habitats and echo systems that we still do not understand. The rain forest is an example...not only are we destroying habitats but we are releasing biohazzards and viruses that may be of siginificant danger to our own species.

Bellz Webster
Bellz Webster

Beautiful. Another sign from God for the new world?

Its great to read of new findings. It gives hope for the future.

Kyle Freeman
Kyle Freeman

"The second-oldest known bird, Jeholornis" This is incorrect. Anchiornis from China and Archaeopteryx from Germany, to name but 2, are 30 million years older than Jeholornis plus there are several more basal birds in between. Jeholornis is a great discovery but it's not even close to being the second-oldest known

ZEINEB MESSAOUDI
ZEINEB MESSAOUDI

c'est peut-être une "huppe" mal placée chez cet oiseau?

craig hill
craig hill

What is unfortunately unincluded in this childlike article is that evolution progresses for one of two reasons, only: To aid in attracting a mate, as in this case, and so that individuals live long enough, e.g., reaching puberty in humans, in their potentially predator-filled environments so that they can mate. All other reasons to evolve are evolutionarily inconsequential.

Susan Lyons-Joell
Susan Lyons-Joell

@El Gabilon Um, I agree about the rainforest and other biodiverse areas....

However, this is an artist's reconstruction of a DINOSAUR-ERA fossil, indicating that bird-like tails did not always look as they do today.

Susan Lyons-Joell
Susan Lyons-Joell

@Bellz Webster This is an artist's reconstruction of a DINOSAUR-ERA fossil, indicating that bird-like tails did not always look as they do today.

if anything, this shows that evolution is not a straight path, and that the way we see the living world now is not the way it always has been.

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

@craig hill how about not getting eaten? or having larger fat reserves to habour healthier offspring?

David Hendriks
David Hendriks

@craig hill I'm pretty sure all those other possible reasons you dismissed fall under your reason number 2, Mr. Craig "Fountain of all evolutionary knowledge" Hill

Belinda Sunderland
Belinda Sunderland

@Susan Lyons-Joell @Bellz Webster   To take it a step farther, the future will not be a straight path either, leaving us to conjecture which direction(s) the living world will go in. Yet another topic to discuss with friends over a glass of wine.

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