Archaeorhynchus preserving significant soft tissue including probable fossilized lungs

Xiaoli Wang, Jingmai K. O'Connor, John N. Maina, Yanhong Pan, Min Wang, Yan Wang, Xiaoting Zheng, Zhonghe Zhou

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Citations (Scopus)


We describe a specimen of the basal ornithuromorph Archaeorhynchus spathula from the Lower Cretaceous Jiufotang Formation with extensive soft tissue preservation. Although it is the fifth specimen to be described, unlike the others it preserves significant traces of the plumage, revealing a pintail morphology previously unrecognized among Mesozoic birds, but common in extant neornithines. In addition, this specimen preserves the probable remnants of the paired lungs, an identification supported by topographical and macro- and microscopic anatomical observations. The preserved morphology reveals a lung very similar to that of living birds. It indicates that pulmonary specializations such as exceedingly subdivided parenchyma that allow birds to achieve the oxygen acquisition capacity necessary to support powered flight were present in ornithuromorph birds 120 Mya. Among extant air breathing vertebrates, birds have structurally the most complex and functionally the most efficient respiratory system, which facilitates their highly energetically demanding form of locomotion, even in extremely oxygen-poor environments. Archaeorhynchus is commonly resolved as the most basal known ornithuromorph bird, capturing a stage of avian evolution in which skeletal indicators of respiration remain primitive yet the lung microstructure appears modern. This adds to growing evidence that many physiological modifications of soft tissue systems (e.g., digestive system and respiratory system) that characterize living birds and are key to their current success may have preceded the evolution of obvious skeletal adaptations traditionally tracked through the fossil record.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11555-11560
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number45
Publication statusPublished - 6 Nov 2018


  • Aves
  • Jehol
  • Lungs
  • Ornithuromorpha
  • Respiration

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Multidisciplinary


Dive into the research topics of 'Archaeorhynchus preserving significant soft tissue including probable fossilized lungs'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this