Fossil bird with fancy tail feathers longer than its body (2024)

If you had to describe a male peaco*ck's tail feathers, you might pick words like "dazzling" or "beautiful." You probably wouldn't go with "stealthy," "aerodynamic," or "subtle." Peaco*ck tails are just one example of how evolution walks a line between favoring traits that make it easier to survive, and traits that make it easier to find a mate -- sometimes, it's less about "survival of the fittest" and more about "survival of the sexiest." In a new paper in Current Biology, scientists have found evidence of this age-old conundrum in the form of a fossil bird from the Early Cretaceous with a pair of elaborate tail feathers longer than its body.

"We've never seen this combination of different kinds of tail feathers before in a fossil bird," says Jingmai O'Connor, a paleontologist at Chicago's Field Museum and one of the study's authors.

"This new discovery vividly demonstrates how the interplay between natural and sexual selections shaped birds' tails from their earliest history," says Wang Min, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the paper's first author, along with scientists from Nanjing University and Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature.

The fossil was discovered in the 120-million-year-old deposits of the Jehol Biota in northeastern China. The researchers named it Yuanchuavis after Yuanchu, a bird from Chinese mythology. It was a small bird, about the size of a bluejay, but its tail was more than 150% the length of its body. And the tail's length isn't the only unusual thing about it.

"It had a fan of short feathers at the base and then two extremely long plumes," says O'Connor. "The long feathers were dominated by the central spine, called the rachis, and then plumed at the end. The combination of a short tail fan with two long feathers is called a pintail, we see it in some modern birds like sunbirds and quetzals."

"Yuanchuavis is the first documented occurrence of a pintail in Enantiornithes, the most successful group of Mesozoic birds," says Wang. "Notably, the morphology preserved in Yuanchuavis essentially represents a combination of the two tail morphologies previously recognized in other enantiornithines which are most closely related to Yuanchuavis: the tail fan is aerodynamically functional, whereas the elongated central paired plumes are used for display, which together reflect the interplay between natural selection and sexual selection." In other words, Yuanchuavis would have been able to fly well, but its long tail feathers that might have helped it find mates didn't make flying any easier -- its fancy tail was literally a drag.

This balance between natural and sexual selection has interested scientists since the time of Darwin: if evolution produces organisms that are better able to meet the pressures of the world around them, then why would an animal develop traits that make it worse at flying or more noticeable to its predators?

"Scientists call a trait like a big fancy tail an 'honest signal,' because it is detrimental, so if an animal with it is able to survive with that handicap, that's a sign that it's really fit," says O'Connor. "A female bird would look at a male with goofily burdensome tail feathers and think, 'Dang, if he's able to survive even with such a ridiculous tail, he must have really good genes.'"

From just a few tail feathers, scientists have been able to piece together hypotheses about what Yuanchuavis was like in life. Long, elaborate tail feathers can help attract a mate, but they're not especially useful -- they're less aerodynamic than a short fan of feathers, so birds that have them tend not to live in places that require superb flight. "Birds that live in harsher environments that need to be able to fly really well, like seabirds in their open environment, tend to have short tails," says O'Connor. "Birds with elaborate tails that are less specialized for flight tend to light in dense, resource-rich environments like forests."

And when birds have features that make them less efficient flyers or more noticeable to predators, that tends to give some information about their home lives. "When you see something on a bird that's really extravagant, that bird is usually male and not very involved with caring for its young," says O'Connor. Big flashy feathers require more resources to maintain, making the male unable to invest resources in childrearing, and there's a risk that his plumage might draw attention to the location of its nest. So, its plainer partner will do most of the work caring for the young.

In addition to better picturing what this specific bird was like in life, the discovery of Yuanchuavis could help scientists answer bigger-picture questions about the birds that survived the big extinction event 66 million years ago. Yuanchuavis is an enantiornithine, a member of a group that was very successful in the time of the dinosaurs, but went extinct along with the dinos. "Understanding why living birds are the most successful group of vertebrates on land today is an extremely important evolutionary question, because whatever it was that allowed them to be so successful probably also allowed them to survive a giant meteor hitting the planet when all other birds and dinosaurs went extinct," says O'Connor.

Understanding how sexual selection may have shaped ancient birds like Yuanchuavis could help us better understand bird diversity today. "It is well known that sexual selection plays a central role in speciation and recognition in modern birds, attesting to the enormous extravagant feathers, ornaments, vocals, and dances," says Wang. "However, it is notoriously difficult to tell if a given fossilized structure is shaped by sexual selection, considering the imperfect nature of the fossil record. Therefore, the well-preserved tail feathers in this new fossil bird provide great new information about how sexual selection has shaped the avian tail from their earliest stage."

"The complexity we see in Yuanchuavis's feathers is related to one of the reasons we hypothesize why living birds are so incredibly diverse, because they can separate themselves into different species just by differences in plumage and differences in song," says O'Connor. "It's amazing that Yuanchuavis lets us hypothesize that that kind of plumage complexity may already have been present in the Early Cretaceous."

Fossil bird with fancy tail feathers longer than its body (2024)


Fossil bird with fancy tail feathers longer than its body? ›

The fossil was discovered in the 120-million-year-old deposits of the Jehol Biota in northeastern China. The researchers named it Yuanchuavis after Yuanchu, a bird from Chinese mythology. It was a small bird, about the size of a bluejay, but its tail was more than 150% the length of its body.

What large male bird is known for its fine tail and feathers? ›

Indian Peafowl

And now we celebrate what is perhaps the most spectacular tail feathers among birds anywhere. The Indian peafowl is famous around the world for its incredible display of iridescent tail feathers, which make up as much as 60% of the male's total body length.

What type of fossil is Archaeopteryx? ›

Animals such as Archaeopteryx that could sit across two or more categories are sometimes called transitional fossils. While Archaeopteryx is sometimes called the first bird or the earliest bird, scientists now think that there could be even older bird ancestors.

What is the fossil evidence of birds? ›

Birds first occur in the fossil record in rocks of Upper Jurassic Age (140MYA) This earliest known bird is called Archaeopteryx, which means “ancient wing”. Archaeopteryx, was first discovered in the Solnhofen Limestone of Bavaria, Germany in 1856.

What did Archaeopteryx look like? ›

Early bird

Archaeopteryx had teeth and a long bony tail, just like other dinos in the theropod family, including Tyrannosaurus rex and Allosaurus. But it had characteristics of modern birds, too, like feathers and a wishbone, or furcula, which aids modern birds' flight. It also had wings—but with claws on them.

What bird has a long beautiful tail feather? ›

This bird has perhaps the most spectacular tail feathers among birds anywhere. The peaco*ck is famous around the world for its incredible display of iridescent tail feathers, which make up as much as 60 per cent of its total body length.

What kind of bird has long tail feathers? ›

One of the most spectacular birds-of-paradise, the male ribbon-tailed astrapia has the longest tail feathers in relation to body size of any bird, over three times the length of its body.

What is the oldest known bird fossil? ›

A fossil called Archaeopteryx (ar key-AHP-ter-icks) with feathers, hollow bones, clawed wings, fifty tiny teeth, and a long bony tail is the earliest known dinosaur that also qualifies as a bird. This spring, the Field Museum is becoming one of the few places on Earth to see a real Archaeopteryx fossil.

What is the oldest bird fossil found? ›

The oldest fossil of a modern bird, dating from the age of dinosaurs, has been discovered, a new study reports. The tiny fossil, nicknamed the "wonderchicken," includes a nearly complete skull hidden inside nondescript pieces of rock, and dates to more than 66 million years ago.

Is the oldest known fossil bird named as Archaeopteryx? ›

Archaeopteryx is known as the earliest and most primitive bird. Archaeopteryx is said to be considered a link between birds and reptiles, the first bird which changed from a land dweller to a bird. It was seen in the late Jurassic Period i.e. around 150–148 million years ago.

What bird is most closely related to dinosaurs? ›

While all birds are descended from dinosaurs, the mysterious cassowary is thought to be more similar to ancient dinosaurs than most other birds. Large bodied with fierce claws, these flightless birds also have casques, a helmet-like structure atop the head, which many dinosaurs are believed to have had.

Why are bird fossils rare? ›

Birds have thin, fragile, bones that make them exceedingly rare in the fossil record. Bird skulls are even harder to find. Luckily, the skull of Falcatakely was buried in a muddy debris flow around 66-68 million years ago.

What is a bird like dinosaur fossil? ›

Discovered in the 1860s, Archaeopteryx was the first fossil evidence linking birds to dinosaurs. It had feathers like modern birds and a skeleton with features like a small non-avian dinosaur. Although it is the earliest and most primitive bird known to date, it is not considered the common ancestor of all birds.

Do all birds have a common ancestor? ›

The ancestor of all living birds lived sometime in the Late Cretaceous, and in the 65 million years since the extinction of the rest of the dinosaurs, this ancestral lineage diversified into the major groups of birds alive today.

What is the half bird half dinosaur? ›

Unlike modern birds, Archaeopteryx had small teeth, as well as a long bony tail, features which Archaeopteryx shared with other dinosaurs of the time. Because it displays features common to both birds and non-avian dinosaurs, Archaeopteryx has often been considered a link between them.

Are all birds descended from dinosaurs? ›

Birds evolved from a group of meat-eating dinosaurs called theropods. That's the same group that Tyrannosaurus rex belonged to, although birds evolved from small theropods, not huge ones like T. rex. The oldest bird fossils are about 150 million years old.

What is a very large bird with white tail feathers? ›

Close up, White-tailed Hawks are a beautiful slate gray with rufous shoulders and a neat black band on the white tail. Like many raptors of grasslands, White-tailed Hawks converge at brush fires, to hunt terrestrial animals fleeing the flames.

What is a large bird with a long tail? ›

The White-tailed Tropicbird is almost always known in Bermuda has the 'Longtail' because of its distinctive tail feathers. This species is well known and much loved locally. Longtails are relatively large birds; adults can measure up to 30 inches (76cm) including the tail feathers, with wingspans up to 3ft (1m).

What bird has big colorful tail feathers? ›

tail feathers, called a train. People have kept these. beautiful blue and green birds for thousands of years.

What is the main tail feather of a rooster? ›

The saddle feathers are long feathers that cover the rump and base of the rooster's tail. Hens have feathers there as well, but they are not often referred to as saddle feathers. The sickle feather is located in a rooster's tail and is the main long feather in the tail.

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