The Loh Down On Science

A paleontologist speculates about the purpose of an unusual appendage

O'Connor et al., PNAS, Sep. 2013

Fig. 3. Reconstruction of the plumage of Jeholornis. (Scale bar: 5 cm.)

Before The Island of Dr. Moreau came the prehistoric Jeholornis!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

The second most ancient bird in the fossil family tree, the Jeholornis was a very odd duck.  Picture a hawk with a goose neck and a tail like a lion's.  It also had wicked claws poking out of its wings.  And it gets weirder. 

Meet Jingmai O’Connor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  She found nine specimens previously overlooked in a local museum.  Six had these unusual plumes near their rump. They were notably wider than any others on its body.  Always bunched together like a bouquet, and rooted to the same spot.  And one specimen showed them fanned out over the bird’s backend.  T’was another tail!  The funny-looking fowl came with two!

Why?  Maybe the second one was used to attract mates.  Think:  embarrassingly inferior peacock fan.  Or perhaps it helped stabilize the bird in flight, like airplane wing flaps.

Or maybe the Jeholornis felt it was already too normal-looking.  Right.

***** For more 90-SECOND SCIENCE FACTS, click here.*****

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


blog comments powered by Disqus