First Fossil Lungs Found In Dinosaur-Era Bird
About 120 million years ago in what’s now northeastern China, a bird met its end during a volcanic eruption.
Ashfall buried the animal so suddenly, its soft tissues didn’t have time to decay, and over millions of years, minerals infiltrated these tissues and preserved their form.
Now, researchers have unveiled this breathtaking specimen, which contains the first fossilized lungs ever found in an early bird.
The species Archaeorhynchus spathula lived alongside the nonavian dinosaurs during the Cretaceous period.
The newfound fossil, which preserves feathers and considerable soft tissue, shows that this primitive bird’s lungs closely resemble those found in living birds.
This suggests that birds’ hyper-efficient lungs, a key adaptation for flight, first emerged earlier than thought, and it underscores how birds—the last living dinosaurs—inherited many iconic traits from their extinct ancestors.
“Everything we knew about lungs, about respiration, about evolution of [birds] was just inferring based on skeletal indicators,” says study coauthor Jingmai O’Connor, a paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China.
“And now we know that we were inferring less generously than we should have.”
O’Connor presented the discovery on October 18 at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the finding will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“This is an exciting discovery,” says Colleen Farmer, an anatomist and physiologist at the University of Utah who reviewed the study.
“Finding bird-like lungs in this group of dinosaurs is to be expected, but it is incredible to uncover hard evidence of this soft structure.”
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