Ancient Fossils Suggest Birds Began on Water

A rendering of the amphibious Gansus yumenensis, a close relative of modern birds.

A rendering of the amphibious Gansus yumenensis, a close relative of modern birds. Mark A. Klingler/CMNH hide caption

itoggle caption Mark A. Klingler/CMNH
A map shows the relative position of the fossil find in China.

A map shows the relative position of the fossil find in China. Mark A. Klingler/CMNH hide caption

itoggle caption Mark A. Klingler/CMNH
Gansus, highlighted in white, is the oldest known member of the Ornithurae, which includes all moder i i

The avian evolutionary tree. Gansus, highlighted in white, is the oldest known member of the Ornithurae, which includes all modern birds. Mark A. Klingler/CMNH hide caption

itoggle caption Mark A. Klingler/CMNH
Gansus, highlighted in white, is the oldest known member of the Ornithurae, which includes all moder

The avian evolutionary tree. Gansus, highlighted in white, is the oldest known member of the Ornithurae, which includes all modern birds.

Mark A. Klingler/CMNH
Nearly complete fossil skeleton of Gansus yumenensis i i

Nearly complete fossil skeleton of Gansus yumenensis. Mark A. Klingler/CMNH hide caption

itoggle caption Mark A. Klingler/CMNH
Nearly complete fossil skeleton of Gansus yumenensis

Nearly complete fossil skeleton of Gansus yumenensis.

Mark A. Klingler/CMNH

A trove of new fossils from northern China shows that some of the first birds on Earth lived on the water. The exquisitely preserved fossils, which resemble modern ducks or loons, lived 110 million years ago.

The Early Cretaceous bird, called Gansus yumenensis, was found in the area of an ancient lake in what is now the Changma Basin of northwestern Gansu Province, China. Gansus is the most advanced Early Cretaceous bird yet discovered.

The bird lived at a time when many forms of the animals living today started to take shape, from marsupials and mammals to flying birds. In the past, fossil birds appeared to have gotten their start on land. But that idea is now changing, says researcher Jerry Harris of Dixie State College in Utah.

"Their ancestors were largely living on the water," Harris said. "And only later did they come back up on land." Harris co-lead the discovery team.

Other scientists who've seen the fossils say it's possible that birds tried various strategies as they evolved, both on land and in the water.

Members of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences first discovered the fossils. One of them, Hai-lu You, says the discovery site in Changma is yielding many more. "We already found dozens of these kind of specimens, so we are very lucky I think," You said. "I am very happy about this."

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