The story of dinosaurs is often told through tooth and bone. Those are the sturdiest parts of a skeleton, and, more often than not, the only parts of their bodies vouchsafed in the stone for our inspection. But they were far more than that, of course. Look at a magpie, robin, or any other living dinosaur and it's easy to see how soft tissues - organs, muscle, feathers, and more - can build an entirely different appearance than what we expect from bones alone. So when we get a petrified view of the outer appearance of extinct species, it's a cause for celebration.

The latest exquisitely-preserved dinosaur to flutter onto the scene is a 125 million year old bird found in Inner Mongolia, China. Paleontologist Di Liu and colleagues have named it Junornis - the beautiful bird - and the fossil lives up to the name. Surrounding the nearly-complete skeleton are remnants of the early bird's feathers, from its wings to the trailing streamers of its tail.

This does more than give us a more refined view of what Junornis would have looked like in life, though. Upon analyzing the aerodynamic capabilities of the bird, Liu and coauthors propose that this Cretaceous flapper was capable of bounding flight - flapping to rise and then folding the wings in to dip, repeating the cycle just in the way small songbirds do today. So when you look at a little chickadee or sparrow flapping and dipping and flapping again through the air, you're seeing something birds have been practicing for about 125 million years. 

The skeleton of Junornis. Credit: Liu et al 2017

Fossil Facts

Name: Junornis houi

Meaning: Junornis means "beautiful bird", and the species name houi honors paleontologist Hou Lianhai.

Age: Cretaceous, about 126 million years ago.

Where in the world?: Inner Mongolia, China. 

What sort of organism?: A bird belonging to an extinct group called enantiornithines.

How much of the organism’s is known?: A nearly complete, articulated skeleton.


Liu, D., Chiappe, L., Serrano, F., Habib, M., Zhang, Y., Meng, Q. 2017. Flight aerodynamics in enantiornithines: information from a new Chinese Early Cretaceous bird. PLOS ONE. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0184637

Previous Paleo Profiles:

The Light-Footed Lizard
The Maoming Cat
Knight’s Egyptian Bat
The La Luna Snake
The Rio do Rasto Tooth
Bob Weir's Otter
Egypt's Canine Beast
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