Scientists revel in finding missing link in avian evolution
Fossils in lake bed are 110 million years old
WASHINGTON -- Separating the layers of sediment from an ancient lake was like turning the pages of a book to get a glimpse of life in the time of dinosaurs, an international team of scientists said yesterday.
``A world lost for more than 100 million years was being revealed to us," said Hai-lu You of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.
What they found is being called the missing link in the evolution of birds, a loon-like creature that lived in northwest China and is the earliest example of modern birds that populate the planet today.
Before their discovery, reported in today'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 Matt Lamanna of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
Previously there was a gap between ancient and modern species of birds, and ``Gansus fits perfectly into this gap," said Jerald D. Harris of Dixie State College in Utah.
Gansus 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.
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 Changma.
``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," commented 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.