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The fossil of a tiny bird-like dinosaur with surprisingly long lower legs has been discovered in China.
The creature would have lived during the Late Jurassic Period 148 million to 150 million years ago in what’s now Fujian province in southeast China.
Named Fuijianvenator prodigiosus, which means “bizarre hunter from Fuijian” in Latin, the creature had elongated lower legs that were twice as long as its thighs. In most dinosaurs, the reverse is true.
Weighing around 1.4 pounds (641 grams) and the size of a pheasant, the fossil is important because it bridged a gap in the fossil record close to the origin of birds, said Min Wang, lead author of the study that published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Birds diverged from two-legged therapod dinosaurs (the group T. rex belonged to) during the Jurassic period, but knowledge of their early evolutionary history is hampered by a relative lack of fossils from this time.
“Fujianvenator, given its unique skeletal morphologies, sheds new light about the morphological evolution … in the earliest evolutionary stage of birds,” said Wang, a professor at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.
In modern animals, an elongated lower leg is associated with species that can run quickly, suggesting that Fujianvenator may have a been a high-speed runner, according to the study.
However, in birds, it’s a feature also present in wading birds like storks and cranes, making it possible that Fujianvenator lived in a swampy aquatic environment.
The fossil was found with fossils of other aquatic and semi-aquatic animals, including turtles and ray-finned fish, which suggest it may have hung out in swamps.
Other known early bird-like dinosaurs lived in trees and were more aerial in nature, the study said.
While no feathers were preserved in the fossil, it’s highly likely Fujianvenator had them because its closest relatives in the dinosaur family tree did, Wang said. It can’t be determined from the fossil whether the bird-like dinosaur could fly or not, he added.