China's new flying dinosaur from the Jurassic is an 'odd' one

Dubbed Fujianvenator, the 150-million-year-old discovery is described as having a bizarre avian body plan. How did flight evolve from this?
Sade Agard
Life reconstruction of the 150-million-year-old avialan theropod Fujianvenator prodigiosus.
Life reconstruction of the 150-million-year-old avialan theropod Fujianvenator prodigiosus.

ZHAO Chuang 

Paleontologists have revealed a 150-million-year-old avialan theropod fossil from Zhenghe County, Fujian Province in China, according to a newly published study published in Nature on September 6.

This incredible find, known as Fujianvenator prodigiosus, effectively bridges a critical 30-million-year gap in our knowledge, providing crucial insights into the early evolution of birds during the Jurassic period.

Flying dinosaurs of the Jurassic 

Avialans are a group of theropod dinosaurs that includes all modern birds and their closest extinct relatives. In essence, avialans encompass the lineage that eventually gave rise to modern birds. 

This group excludes certain other theropod dinosaurs like Deinonychus and Troodon and has long intrigued scientists. They played a pivotal role in the evolution of flight and the development of avian characteristics, making them a critical part of the dinosaur-to-bird transition in Earth's history.

Still, our understanding of their earliest evolution has been hindered by the scarcity of Jurassic fossils — until now. 

No definitive avialans were known from this era except for fossils from the Yanliao Biota in northeast China and the German Solnhofen Limestones, which house the iconic Archaeopteryx.

This latest discovery bridges a critical 30-million-year gap in our knowledge of avialan evolution, offering valuable insights into the characteristic avialan body plan and resolving phylogenetic controversies surrounding bird origins.

"Our comparative analyses show that marked changes in body plan occurred along the early avialan line, which is largely driven by the forelimb, eventually giving rise to the typical bird limb proportion," explained lead author Dr. Wang Min from IVPP (Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences), in a press release

"However, Fujianvenator is an odd species that diverged from this main trajectory and evolved bizarre hindlimb architecture."

The elongated lower leg and other distinct features of Fujianvenator hint at an intriguing ecological niche. 

China's new flying dinosaur from the Jurassic is an 'odd' one
Photo of the newly discovered 150-million-year-old avialan theropod, Fujianvenator prodigiosus.

How did Fujianvenator live?

This ancient avialan may have thrived in swampy environments, either as a high-speed runner or a long-legged wader, introducing a previously unknown dimension to early avialan lifestyles.

In addition to the discovery of Fujianvenator, the Zhenghe County site has provided an array of other fascinating fossils. These include bony fish known as teleosts, a group of reptiles that encompasses turtles and tortoises, called testudines, and a now-extinct group of reptiles known as choristoderes.

This rich diversity underscores the significance of the locality, named the "Zhenghe Fauna."

"The Zhenghe Fauna provides a unique window into the Late Jurassic terrestrial ecosystem, and it shares a geological backdrop with the older Yanliao Biota in north and northeastern China, both shaped by intensive tectonic activity and magmatism," said Dr. Zhou Zhonghe from IVPP.

Radiometric dating and detailed stratigraphic surveys pinpoint the Zhenghe Fauna to the period between 150 and 148 million years ago, making Fujianvenator one of the youngest and southernmost Jurassic avialans known to science.

The team behind this new Late Jurassic find is committed to further exploration of Zhenghe and its neighboring areas, ensuring that this exciting chapter in Earth's history continues to unfold.

The complete study was published in Nature on September 6 and can be found here.

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