There is perhaps no country in the world that reveres dragons more than China, which makes a recent discovery an interesting one. Researchers in northeastern China found the fossils of a 120-million-year-old creature that looks like a cross between a palm-sized bird and a T. rex. An early ancestor of dragons? Could there be any lurking around in the mountains keeping the legend alive?
“Our understanding of evolutionary assembly of the modern form and function of avian cranium has been impeded by the rarity of early bird fossils with well-preserved skulls. Here, we describe a new enantiornithine bird from the Early Cretaceous of China that preserves a nearly complete skull including the palatal elements, exposing the components of cranial kinesis. Our three-dimensional reconstruction of the entire enantiornithine skull demonstrates that this bird has an akinetic skull indicated by the unexpected retention of the plesiomorphic dinosaurian palate and diapsid temporal configurations, capped with a derived avialan rostrum and cranial roof, highlighting the highly modular and mosaic evolution of the avialan skull.”
What? What researchers from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are trying to say in their new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, is that there has been a hole in the study of how ancient birdlike creatures evolved into flightless, monstrous yet still slightly birdlike dinosaurs like the T. rex. What they found in a shallow lake in what is today Liaoning Province in northeastern China may help plug that hole -- a 120-million-year-old partial fossil skeleton of a tiny creature whose body resembles a bird but whose head is clearly that of a miniature T. rex. (See the fossils and drawings here.) The creature fits into the extinct avialan family known as enantiornithes, which had teeth and clawed fingers on each wing, but otherwise resembled birds. This one, however, had more than just teeth.
“The temporal regions (sides) of the skull of this bird fossil are very different from living birds. This new species has two bony arches for jaw muscle attachment like those found in reptiles such as lizards, alligators, and dinosaurs, making the rear of the skull rigid and resistant to movement among the bones.”
The press release from the Chinese Academy of Sciences explains how the large reptilian skull baffled the scientists trying to reconstruct the creature. One bone was especially unbirdlike, but co-authors Dr. Wang Min and Dr. Thomas Stidham recognized it as a pterygoid similar to those in the dromaeosaur Linheraptor, a birdlike therapod … making this the first well-preserved pterygoid bone found in an early bird. That big T. rex head made this more of a dinosaur than a bird, and it didn’t hinder it from being a tiny flying monster.
"Having a 'dinosaur' skull on a bird body certainly did not stop the enantiornithines, or other early birds, from being highly successful in places all around the world for tens of millions of years during the Cretaceous."
These T. rex birds managed to survive for tens of millions of years, and we know that modern birds may be the closest thing to dinosaurs we have living today. Could one or more of them still be hiding in a Chinese forest like the alleged pterodactyls or thunderbirds often reported in remote areas of the U.S.? Probably not. Could they have at least survived long enough to be mistaken for flying dragons? Also a negative, although similar fossils may have stimulated the imaginations of early discoverers to envision them as flying dragons and, without the benefit of modern dating techniques, led them to believe they’re still flying around.