A newly unearthed creature, distinct from early birdlike dinosaurs that are traditionally associated with a life high up in the trees, presents a surprising revelation. Researchers report that the Fujianvenator prodigiosus, an avialan dinosaur that existed approximately 150 million years ago during the Jurassic Period, had notably elongated legs, suggesting a different lifestyle altogether. This discovery, detailed in a study published on September 6 in the journal Nature, sheds light on a lesser-known aspect of avialan evolution and challenges preconceived notions about their early existence.
Paleontologist Min Wang, affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, notes that the Fujianvenator prodigiosus bears a striking resemblance to its distant relative, Archaeopteryx, one of the earliest known birds. However, the distinguishing feature of this newfound creature lies in its exceptionally long legs. Wang remarks, "It looks quite similar to Archaeopteryx … except the legs. Fujianvenator has really, really long legs."
Through their research, Wang and fellow scientists have determined that this creature belongs to the ranks of the earliest avialans, a group that eventually branched away from other dinosaurs and evolved into the birds we know today. The early avialans hold a pivotal role in the story of bird origins. Nevertheless, our understanding of these creatures remains limited due to the scarcity of fossil evidence.
Previously discovered early avialans, including Archaeopteryx, possessed relatively short limbs, seemingly adapted for navigating through treetops. In contrast, the newly identified F. prodigiosus displayed a unique anatomical trait: its lower leg bones were twice as long as its thigh bones, a feature unprecedented among known birdlike dinosaurs.
The fossils of Fujianvenator prodigiosus were found preserved within mudstones and shales in what is now southeastern China. Interestingly, these fossils were accompanied by those of aquatic and semiaquatic species, suggesting that F. prodigiosus inhabited a swampy environment. It is likely that this leggy dinosaur either pursued prey with speed, reminiscent of modern ostriches, or waded through water like a primitive crane.
This discovery underscores the fact that the early avialans did not exclusively inhabit trees, challenging the conventional notion of their lifestyles. Wang emphasizes, "It's not the full picture," suggesting that our understanding of the diverse ecological niches occupied by these ancient birds is still evolving.