Confuciusornis is a genus of primitive crow-sized birds from the Early Cretaceous Yixian and Jiufotang Formations of China, dating from 125 to 120 million years ago. Like modern birds, Confuciusornis had a toothless beak, but close relatives of modern birds such as Hesperornis and Ichthyornis were toothed, indicating that the loss of teeth occurred convergently in Confuciusornis and living birds. It is the oldest known bird to have a beak. It was named after the Chinese moral philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC). Confuciusornis is one of the most abundant vertebrates found in the Yixian Formation, and several hundred complete, articulated specimens have been found.
Discovery and naming
In November 1993 Chinese paleontologists Zhou Zhonge, Hu Yoaming and Hou Lianhai, of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology at Beijing, were presented a bird fossil bought at a flea market in Sihetun by amateur paleontologist Zhang He. It showed a partial skeleton of a bird new to science of which even some feather remains had been preserved. In December 1993 two further specimens were acquired from a farmer, Yang Yushan. Soon afterwards, it was discovered that local farmers were in the process of collecting hundreds of specimens that were provisionally prepared by them to be illegally sold to commercial fossil dealers. Many hundreds have since also been added to the official collections of Chinese institutions. In 2010 the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature alone possessed 536 specimens. The fossils are compressed but otherwise typically very complete often showing the entire feathering of the animal.
Based on the abundant material, six species have been formally named and described: C. sanctus (the type species), C. dui, C. feducciai, C. jianchangensis, C. chuonzhous and C. suniae. The latter two are usually considered synonymous with C. sanctus. Most species lived in the early Aptian 125 million year old Jianshangou Beds of the Yixian Formation, though C. jianchangnsis is found in the later (120Ma) middle Aptian Jiufotang Formation. C. sanctus is known from the former, and is one of the most common vertebrate species found in the Yixian, often present in dense concentrations. At one time forty were discovered on a surface of about 100 m2. This has been explained as the result of entire flocks of birds being simultaneously killed by ash, heat or poisonous gas following the volcanic eruptions that caused the tuff stone in which the fossils were found to be deposited as lake sediments.
In 1995 Zhou, Hou, Zhang and Gu Youcai named Confuciusornis sanctus. The generic name combines the philosopher Confucius with a Greek ὄρνις, (ornis), "bird". The specific name means "holy one" in Latin and is a translation of Chinese 圣贤, shèngxián, "sage", again in reference to Confucius. The holotype specimen is IVPP V10918. In 1997 Hou named two species. The first was Confuciusornis chuonzhous, based on specimen IVPP V10919, originally a paratype of C. sanctus. The specific name refers to Chuanzhou, an ancient name for Beipiao. The second species was Confuciusornis suniae, based on specimen IVPP V11308. The specific name honours madam Sun, the wife of Shikuan Liang who donated the fossil to the IVPP. In 1999 Hou, Zhou, Zhang, Larry Martin and Alan Feduccia named Confuciusornis dui, based on specimen IVPP V11553. The specific name again honours a donating collector: Du Wengya. In 2009 Zhang Fucheng et al. named Confuciusornis feducciai, based on specimen D2454, the specific name honouring Feduccia. In 2010 Li Li, Wang Jingqi and Hou Shilin named Confuciusornis jianchangensis, based on specimen PMOL-AB00114 found at Toudaoyingzi.
In 2002 Hou named the genus Jinzhouornis. Luis Chiappe later concluded that this is probably a junior synonym of Confuciusornis.
In The Land Before Time
Two, black Confusciusornis briefly appear in the game The Land Before Time for the GameBoy Color. They are one of four creatures used in a password system for the game to save the progress of the player.