(AP) -- The first detailed look at the ancestor of modern birds -- a
grebe-like waterbird that would look normal even today -- was shown
off Thursday by scientists who discovered fossil remains in a remote
lake bed in China.
"A world lost for more than 100 million
years was being revealed to us," as layers of mud were peeled back
like the pages of a book, said Hai-lu You of the Chinese Academy of
What they found is being called the missing link on the evolution
of birds, a creature that lived in northwest China and is the
earliest example of modern birds that populate the planet today.
Before the scientists' discovery, reported in Friday's issue of
the journal Science, the only evidence for this creature -- Gansus
yumenensis -- was a single, partial leg discovered in the 1980s.
Now researchers have dozens of nearly complete fossils of Gansus,
said a beaming Matt Lamanna of the Carnegie Museum of Natural
History in Pittsburgh.
"Most of the ancestors of birds from the age of dinosaurs are
members of groups that died out and left no modern descendants. But
Gansus led to modern birds, so it's a link between primitive birds
and those we see today," Lamanna said.
Previously there was a gap between ancient and modern species of
birds, and "Gansus fits perfectly into this gap," added Jerald D.
Harris of Dixie State College in Utah.
It was about the size of a modern pigeon, but similar to loons or
diving ducks, the researchers said. One of the fossils even has skin
preserved between the toes, showing that it had webbed feet.
"We were lucky far beyond our expectations" in finding these
fossils, added You.
"Gansus is the oldest example of the nearly modern birds that
branched off of the trunk of the family tree that began with the
famous proto-bird Archaeopteryx," said Peter Dodson of the
University of Pennsylvania.
The remains were dated to about 110 million years ago, making
them the oldest for the group Ornithurae, which includes all modern
birds and their closest extinct relatives. Previously, the oldest
known fossils from this group were from about 99 million years ago.
The fact that Gansus was aquatic indicates that modern birds may
have evolved from animals that originated in aquatic environments,
the researchers said.
"Our new specimens are extremely well preserved, with some even
including feathers," Lamanna said. "Because these fossils are in
such good condition, they've enabled us to reconstruct the
appearance and relationships of Gansus with a high degree of
precision. They provide new and important insight into the
evolutionary transformation of carnivorous dinosaurs into the birds
we know today."
The remains were found in an ancient lake bed near the town of
"We went to Changma hoping that we'd discover one, maybe two,
fragments of fossil birds," he said. "Instead, we found dozens,
including some almost complete skeletons with soft tissues."
The new fossil material "is remarkable for its excellent
preservation. ... The new fossils demonstrate that Gansus clearly is
a bird that spent much of its life looking for food in water," said
Hans-Dieter Sues, associate director for research and collections at
the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.
Gansus is an additional "link in a long chain of intermediate
forms between Archaeopteryx, the oldest known bird from the late
Jurassic, and modern birds," said Sues, who was not part of
Lamanna's research team.
Funding for the research was provided by the Discovery Quest
program for The Science Channel, Carnegie Museum of Natural History,
Dixie State College of Utah, the Chinese Geological Survey and the
Ministry of Science and Technology of China.
At one point during the field work, Lamanna told his colleagues
he would eat a duck foot if they found the fossil they were seeking
while the television camera crew was still there.
So, did they?
"It tasted sort of like chicken, but real rubbery," he recalled.