Two well-preserved fossils have re-written the history of the birds, showing this one lived five to six million years earlier than previously thought.
The species, named Archaeornithura meemannae, is the oldest known record of Ornithuromorpha, the same evolutionary branch that gave rise to all bird species currently living.
Ornithuromorpha are thought to have represented around half the total diversity of bird species during the Mesozoic era of 252-66 million years ago.
The others Enantiornithes, characterised by teeth and clawed wings, are believed to have become extinct at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary approximately 66 million years ago.
Min Wang and colleagues describe this new species, in Nature Communications.
The fossils were found in the Sichakou basin in Hebei, northeastern China, as having a near-completely preserved plumage with anatomical features characteristic of an aerodynamic lifestyle and manoeuvrability during flight.
The absence of feathers on the upper leg, or tibiotarsus, is also indicative of a wading lifestyle, consistent with other fossil bird species found in similar deposits. Stratigraphic and radiometric dating of the geological layers from which these fossils were extracted indicates these new specimens lived during the Early Cretaceous period 130.7 million years ago, predating the last known specimens of this branch from the Lower Cretaceous, 125 million years ago.
Northeastern China is a treasure trove of fossils, including many that show the evolutionary link between the dinosaurs and the birds.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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