for National Geographic News
The fossil of a previously unknown water bird that lived some 125 million years ago has been discovered in China.
The new type of wading bird provides important clues to the evolution of later birds, experts say.
Found in Inner Mongolia in northeast China, the finely preserved sandstone fossil reveals a small relative of modern birds that lived around lakeshores also inhabited by dinosaurs.
Named for an early Chinese culture that lived in the region where the fossil was found, Hongshanornis longicresta had a distinctive head crest, long legs, short wings, and a pointed beak.
Scientists say the ancient species resembled modern-day plovers. The ancient bird likely waded in shallow waters in search of small fish, crustaceans, and other aquatic prey.
Chinese fossil experts Zhonghe Zhou and Fucheng Zhang described the discovery this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition.
They say the finding shows features that separate it from more primitive forest-dwelling birds, and that lakes probably played a key role in the evolution of modern birds.
H. longicresta's powerful flying ability and internally regulated body temperature may explain why some birds survived the catastrophic events that killed off many other animals, including the dinosaurs, some 66 million years ago.
The discovery "will go a long way toward clarifying what has been a murky picture of the avian past," bird evolution expert Alan Feduccia wrote in an accompanying article.
Feduccia, a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, noted that the fossil "shows skeletal features that indicate a shore-dwelling habitat."
He also said the discovery adds to previous fossil evidence, making an "overwhelming" case for the evolution of two distinct types of birds during the early Cretaceous period (between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago).
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