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New Species of Bird Named for UNC Biologist

A new species of the oldest known beaked bird – about 120 million years old – has been named for biologist Alan Feduccia of UNC.

Feduccia is the S.K. Heninger professor emeritus and former chair of the biology department.

The fossil of the early Cretaceous period bird, named Confuciusornis feducciai, was recently discovered in ancient, dried-up lake deposits in Liaoning Province in northeastern China, an area that has produced a “gold rush” of fossils in the last decade, Feduccia said. He helped to describe the genus Confuciusornis – named after the Chinese philosopher Confucius – in a paper in the journal Nature in 1995.

The study describing the new species, published on-line in advance of the April 2009 issue of the Journal of Ornithology, says it is dedicated to Feduccia for his contribution to the study of the origin and evolution of birds.

Feduccia, who came to UNC in 1971, said having a bird named for him “is a thrill.” He will add the discovery to a new book he is writing on bird evolution, which he hopes to finish in early 2010.

The new book is a follow-up to Feduccia’s 1996 book, The Origin and Evolution of Birds, which won the award for excellence in biological sciences from the Association of American Publishers.

The new bird is the largest known species of Confuciusornis discovered so far. Feduccia described it as a tree-dweller, “a crow-sized bird with two elongated tail plumes.”

“The really interesting thing about this bird is that it occurred in enormous social flocks in forests around these lakes. The new species is larger and more distinctive,” he said. “This is one of the few areas of the world where we have a fairly complete window on the early Cretaceous period.”

Feduccia has long challenged the view that birds come from advanced therapod dinosaurs that developed flight from the ground up. The multiple fossil finds in China indicate that there was a great radiation of birds just after the appearance of the 150 million-year-old, reptile-like Archaeopteryx, the earliest and most primitive bird known, he said.

– David Brown ’75

To read the Journal of Ornithology study, visit www.springerlink.com/content/110831/ and click on “Online First.”

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