The prehistoric bird Archaeopteryx may have some stiff competition for the title of nature's earliest bird, according to several paleontologists who argue the species Aurornis xui is the first bird to ever exist.
For nearly 100 years, the Archaeopteryx was widely accepted as the first bird to ever exist, but recent research on the Aurornis xui suggests its characteristics qualify the animal as a bird.
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The species appears to be a cross between a bird and a dinosaur — the feather-covered creature has dinosaur-like teeth, claws, and a bony tail.
In the science journal Nature, published earlier this week, paleontologist Pascal Godefroit and colleagues argued that the Aurornis xui, which lived about 10 million years earlier than Archaeopteryx, was in fact the earliest living bird based on two specimens unearthed in a 160-million-year-old rock of China's Tiaojishan Formation.
"It's among the earliest birds, being it's both older and apparently less 'bird-like' than Archaeopteryx along the 'bird branch,'" says study co-author Andrea Cau of Italy's Museo Geologico.
Despite that the species seems to be a missing link, not everyone is convinced. Critics argue the Archaeopteryx was just one of many plumage-covered
, non-avian dinosaurs, National Geographic noted.
"By being so primitive there is no definite way to place them as stem-birds [or] stem-deinonychosaurs," said University of Maryland paleontologist Thomas Holtz Jr.
Paleontologist Luis Chiappe, of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, agreed with Holtz.
"The problem we are facing these days is that all these animals are anatomically very similar, and our definition of birds — arbitrary as it is — sets a line between what is and what isn't called a bird," Chiappe said.
The amount of feathery fossils is a factor in the determination.
"What the trees — and the new fossils — are telling us is that back in the Jurassic, 150 to 160 million years ago, many different types of dinosaurs were experimenting with 'birdness,'" Chiappe notes. "And it is from this 'birdness soup' that true birds originated."
The debate as to which is the "first bird" to ever exist will likely continue for years to come.
One detail all paleontologists can agree is that today's pigeons, sparrows, and other flying animals are all descendants of dinosaurs.
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