This is the world's earliest birdS

Remember Archaeopteryx — that bird-like creature many consider to be the earliest ever? Yeah, well, it just got trumped by this guy: Meet Aurornis xui, a newly discovered species of dinosaur that could be the earliest known member of the bird family tree.

Called Aurora for short, it’s name means “daybreak” or “dawn” — and the moniker certainly fits.

The dinosaur lived about 160 million years ago during the Middle Jurassic period. Its beautiful skeleton was found preserved in clay sediment in the Tiaojishan Formation of Liaoning Province in China.

This is the world's earliest birdS

And don’t let the top picture deceive you — this thing was fairly big, measuring nearly a half-meter in height (1.7 feet) and about 20 inches long. Its hands were clawed and it had teeth which it used to feast on insects and other small Jurassic-era critters.

It also had four “wings,” including feathers located at the back of its legs. Aurora could not fly, but it was probably an excellent glider.

Archaeopteryx is now no longer considered to be the world’s oldest bird, a creature that lived about 10 to 15 million years ago. Though there is considerable debate as to whether or not Aurora and Archaeopteryx were more dinosaurs than birds, the researchers say a clear line now exists between non-avian dinos and birds at the mid-to-late Jurassic period — a line that starts with the clade of dinos called Maniraptora.

More analysis from Nature News:

[Pascal] Godefroit and his colleagues contend that Aurornis is the oldest known member of the Avialae, the group that includes every animal that is more closely related to modern birds than to non-avian dinosaurs such as Velociraptor. With Aurornis rooted at the base of the avian tree, the researchers place Archaeopteryx further up the trunk, firmly within the Avialae lineage, and not with the non-avian dinosaurs as other researchers recently suggested.

Godefroit notes that putting Archaeopteryx back within the bird lineage means that powered flight need have evolved only once among birds and dinosaurs. If Archaeopteryx, with its relatively well-developed wings, was more closely related to Velociraptor than to birds, powered flight would have had to evolve twice.

Read the entire study at Nature: “A Jurassic avialan dinosaur from China resolves the early phylogenetic history of birds.”

Top image: Masato Hattori; fossil image: THIERRY HUBIN/IRSNB.