KU researchers find venomous-bird fossil

The world's first known venom-fanged bird has been discovered in ancient fossils dug up in northeast China, scientists at the University of Kansas announced Monday.

Sinornithosaurus (Chinese bird-lizard) was a turkey-size creature that had fierce-looking fangs that were long, grooved and venomous. It also probably had flight feathers on its back legs, which made it a four-winged gliding predator.

This is the first report of venom in the lineage that leads to modern birds, scientists say.

Larry Martin, a KU scientist who helped discover and describe it, says the creature — as possibly the world's first-known venomous bird — is going to shake up all the known science about bird history.

While he and the other three scientists involved are careful to say in their scientific paper that Sino is a "bird-like creature," and a "raptor closely related to birds," Martin goes farther.

"I have a habit of deciding that if it looks like a bird and quacks like a bird, it's a bird," Martin said. "This is a bird."

The fangs made this creature look almost like a saber-tooth, he said.

Martin, the senior curator of vertebrate paleontology in the Biodiversity Institute at KU, is an internationally known authority on ancient birds and mammals, dinosaurs, climate change, evolution, and the fossil history of disease. Chinese paleontologists often invite him to China when they dig up never-before-described creatures.

He said Sinornithosaurus thrived 128 million years ago in heavily canopied tropical pine and fern forests of China; the fossil specimens ended up dying and being embedded and preserved in the muddy bottom of a lake.

The world was different then, Martin said: Temperatures were warmer; there was little or no ice at the North and South poles. Grass and flowering plants were only beginning to emerge and leafy trees had not yet appeared on the Earth; forests were made up of pines, ginkgo trees and ferns.

The Rocky Mountains had not yet risen from the North American plains; dinosaurs thrived, and mammals were all mouse- or shrew-like creatures that hid from predators like this one.

The KU-China team's findings will be published in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science this week.

"We think it's going to make a big splash," Martin said.

The article's authors are Enpu Gong, geology department at Northeastern University in Shenyang, China, and researchers Martin, David Burnham and Amanda Falk at KU.

The KU scientists traveled to China several times to study and describe the fossils. Martin said Sinornithosaurus is a relative to velociraptor, made famous in the movie "Jurassic Park."

The KU scientists made the discovery while studying microraptors, which other scientists say are a four-winged species of dinosaur that appears to be closely related to birds.

Microraptors do not appear to have been venomous, though. While studying microraptors, Martin, Burnham and their Chinese colleagues came across a half-dozen other fossils dug up in recent years that had mouthfuls of sharp, curved teeth and fangs in the middle of the mouth with distinct grooves. Along the side of the face was a depression in the bone that the scientists believe held a venom gland; from that depression a groove led to the tooth row.

"We just looked at each other that day," Martin said. "And I said, 'David, you do realize what this means?'

"We were shocked. We knew at that moment, 'Oh my gosh, this was a venomous animal.' "

The venom fangs are located toward the middle or back of the mouth. The creature probably used the venom not to kill but to immobilize prey the way some snakes and lizards with venomous back fangs do today. Sino probably preyed on other birds, gliding from tree to tree, and used shorter sharp teeth in the front of its mouth to tear off feathers to get to the meat.

"You wouldn't have seen it coming," Burnham said. "It would have swooped down behind you from a low-hanging tree branch and attacked from the back. It wanted to get its jaws around you.

"Once the teeth were embedded in your skin, the venom could seep into the wound. The prey would rapidly go into shock, but it would still be living, and it might have seen itself being slowly devoured by this raptor."

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