Thursday, 31 July 2008

Art #7: Confuciusornis sanctus in life and death

Confuciusornis sanctus Hou et al., 1995
Confuciusornithidae; Confuciusornithiformes; Aves; Chordata
Manchester Museum
July 2008

"Confuciusornis sanctus in life and death"
Same taxon as above
Coloured pencil illustration, July 2008

Confuciusornis sanctus was a very early bird dating from the Early Cretaceous Period of China (about 120 million years ago). It is known to be a true bird and not just a dinosaur (ignore the fact that birds are dinosaurs here, because not all dinosaurs are birds!) due to a few features, notably the lack of teeth and the absence of a long tail made up of separate vertebrae. Instead, Confuciusornis, like all modern birds, has a pygostyle, a bone made up of these separate vertebrae now fused. Notice that although there are many birds today with apparently long tails, such as pheasants, quetzals, peacocks and birds of paradise, they all have a short bony pygostyle to which these feathers are attached. Dinosaurs (non-avian ones at least) did not possess the pygostyle, and had a long set of caudal vertebrae instead. So although Archaeopteryx (photo, drawing and more in a future post I hope!) is considered a bird, it does have teeth, as some other primitive birds like Hesperornis, and it has a long tail and no pygostyle, amongst other adaptations not yet gained, i.e. a well-developed keel on the sternum for breast muscles to attach to.

The fossil pictured in the photograph is real, and the plaque next to it in Manchester Museum states that it was purchased. The feathers can clearly be seen, and although most Confuciusornis specimens are found with two long tail feathers imprinted, this specimen does not, so it could represent sexual dimorphism, where the male and female look different. Perhaps females weren't as colourful as the males, and also perhaps they had no need for long tail feathers. You can also clearly see the claws on the hands, which some modern birds also retain (like the hoatzin). The claws are very similar to those of the ancestral dinosaurs which gave rise to Confuciusornis and other birds. It also looks as if the bird had an erectile crest of feathers on the nape of its neck, I have tried to illustrate that in my drawings. The colour scheme was loosely based on the colours of China, seeing as the bird is from there, its name honours one of the most well known philosophers and the main religion of the country, and the fact that the Olympics starts there pretty soon.

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