STL Science Center

STL Science Center

06 June 2012

Some Interesting Notes on Confuciusornis

Facts about the fossils of Confuciusornis and its discovery that I find interesting or entertaining in a concise and summary oriented presentation:
1. As of 2010 over 536 specimens of Confuciusornis had been cataloged in the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature.
2. The first fossil, found in 1993, was acquired by Zhong, Yoaming, and Lianhai at a flea market from an amateur paleontologist named Zhong He.
3. In early 1994 it was discovered that hundreds of specimens controlled by farmers were being illegally prepared and sold to private fossil collectors and dealers.
4. Confuciusornis is considered one of the most popular and densely represented vertebrate fossils of the Aptian age of the Early Cretaceous. One instance was reported in which 40 specimens were found in a 100 square meter area.
5. C. feducciai is the largest of the species of Confuciusornis. The average wingspan of the bird was about 2.3 feet, about that of a crow. C. feducciai was a bit longer than C. sanctus but had an almost identical wingspan.
6. Confuciusornis is regarded as a species which shows many ancient and modern avian adaptations and thus bridges a significant gap in the evolutionary record. It retains the claws of the forelimb, a rigid, but toothless, beak, a small breastbone, and a closed eye socket as is found in dinosaurs, but also possessed lightweight bones, the start of the wishbone, wings which, though they seem inadequate for flapping flight, were probably used at least for gliding if not a unique motion of flight that differs from modern birds,  and fairly modern feathers.
7. Coloring pigments have been found as preserved melanosomes in some feathers of Confuciusornis, making it one of very few fossil animals that has a known color scheme. That color scheme is proposed to be mostly grey, red, brown, and black, like a zebra finch as a modern equivalent.
©Matthew Martyniuk
Flight mechanics, obviously, are a very important area of study around "primitive" birds and as such, there are also a lot of interesting facts about Confuciusornis that have been gleaned from study of its life, including diet, which we can use to understand better how it flew and how its flight adaptations arose. Additionally, in studying the flight, diet, and other mechanics of the bird, we have come to understand, or at least theorize, a lot about the feathers and colors of which this bird was comprised.
1. While possessing strong flight indicating adaptations, the flight of Confuciusornis has been scrutinized in recent years based on some not so flight friendly dinosaurian adaptations that are still present in Confuciusornis. These include limited vertical wing movement (the lack of an upstroke up and over the back of the bird), and weak feather strength (which leads to a failed power stroke because of a lack of rigidity in the feathers).
2. Weight of the bird, estimated at a range varying between 0.2 and 1.5 kilograms massively affects the ability and type of flight under which Confuciusornis could manage itself in the air. One study, using 1.5 kilograms states that gliding is the most the bird could achieve, while others still believe at a very light weight Confuciusornis may have had some mechanical flight capabilities despite the lack of an adequate upstroke.
3. Osteological studies have determined that Confuciusornis was a quick grower. Maximum size was determined to be achieved in as little as 13 weeks and as many as 20 weeks after hatching. That indicates growth and metabolism equal to that of modern birds.
4. The diet of Confuciusornis is known to have consisted of fish, seeds and berries (remember the statement I made about that big tough beak), insects, and fruits.
5. Rings in its eye sockets, called scleral rings, indicate that, from comparison to modern birds, Confuciusornis was most likely diurnal, or a daytime bird.

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