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Xiaotingia; pronounced zhow-TIN-gee-ah
Woodlands of Asia
Late Jurassic (155 million years ago)
Size and Weight:
About two feet long and five pounds
Small size; long tail; primitive feathers
In order to understand the importance of Xiaotingia, you need a short lesson about a much more famous animal, Archaeopteryx. When the exquisitely preserved fossils of Archaeopteryx were discovered in Germany's Solnhofen fossil beds in the mid-19th century, naturalists identified this flying, feathered creature as the first true bird, the key "missing link" in avian evolution. That's the image that has persisted ever since in the popular imagination, even though better-informed paleontologists now know that Archaeopteryx possessed a weird mix of bird-like and dinosaur-like characteristics, and probably should have been classified as a feathered dinosaur (rather than a primitive bird) all along.
So what does all of this have to do with Xiaotingia? Well, this very Archaeopteryx-like critter, discovered in China's Liaoning fossil beds, predated its more prominent cousin by five million years, living about 155 rather than 150 million years ago. More important, the research team that examined Xiaotingia identified it right off the bat as a small "maniraptoran" theropod that shared important features in common with raptor dinosaurs like Microraptor and Velociraptor, rather than a prehistoric bird--the implication being that if Xiaotingia wasn't a true bird, then neither was Archaeopteryx, which was only recently descended from it. This has caused a large amount of consternation in the "Archaeopteryx was a bird" camp, but hasn't impressed those more dubious paleontologists who doubted Archaeopteryx's credentials in the first place!