For paleontologists, the links between dinosaurs and birds are no longer in question.
What was once a big 'maybe?' is now considered scientific fact. Somewhere along the way, over many millions of years, a line of small prehistoric reptiles evolved from two-legged, feathered predators into hollow-boned, winged creatures capable of flight. A cunning Velociraptor from the Cretaceous and a stunning cardinal in your backyard have a common ancestor.
But exactly how that change happened is still something researchers are trying to pin down. What were the mid-stage animals in that evolution? The animals that were still kind-of dinosaur, but almost fully bird?
There's probably no one past creature that fits this bill, and scientists have a few possibilities. But one of the most exciting examples yet is a fossil recently found in China of a most unusual animal.
Meet Cratonavis zhui—the bird with a dinosaur's head!
Found in northern China, this 120-million-year old animal has a remarkable mixture of traits.
Its toothed jaw and skull are firmly dinosaur-like. Yet the rest of its body is almost identical to that of a modern bird. Not exactly the same, of course! But close enough that Cratonavis zhui feels like a magical mashup never before seen by science.
What a hybrid! Or is that hy-bird?
Experts have remarked that the early Cretaceous animal sits between the more reptilian Archeopteryx and the Ornithothoraces, a group of animals that include modern birds and their closest ancestors. The exceptionally well-preserved skeleton, which is essentially complete, is giving paleontologists a rare chance. Now they can compare and contrast the Cratonavis bones alongside those of dinosaurs, prehistoric bird ancestors, and modern birds.
Discoveries like this one are not only strengthening the link between dinosaurs and birds, they are helping us understand exactly how and when these changes took place as these creatures evolved. Fascinating!