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Confuciusornis - Palaeo Photography

  • 23-07-2008 10:37pm
    Registered Users Posts: 30,746 ✭✭✭✭ Galvasean

    Just to give us another topic to caht about i taught I'd post a short essay I did a few years ago. The topic is that of the little known profession known as 'palaeo photography' with particular mention to Dr. Paul Davis and his work on Confucisornis sanctus, a species of prehistoric bird. Hope it gets a good talk going. My apologies if the formatting is poor.

    Palaeo Photography is taking photographs of creatures from a bygone age including dinosaurs and other fantastic beasts of the past. How in any possibility could someone take photographs of extinct animals? Surely some sort of time machine would be required? Well, not exactly.

    Although palaeo photographers are not as heralded as palaeo artists such as Charles R. Knight or Luis V. Rey, they do have a specialised niche among the scientific community. It is their job and their job alone to bring actual fossils, not stretches of the imagination to our eyes in their photographs. One such photographer is Dr. Paul Davis whose work on the ancient bird Confuciusornis sanctus is an excellent example and a credit to his profession. A gallery of his Confuciusornis photographs, arguably one of his best works, can be viewed at

    In this gallery Davis elegantly displays the finer points of Confuciusornis' physiology which have made this seemingly ordinary fossil so important to the scientific community. At 120 million years old Confuciusornis is the first known bird to display a fully formed beak. Long curved claws on its wings cast a clue at its true and somewhat fearsome heritage. Not only did it fly above the dinosaurs of 120 million years ago. It was one of them! Davis presents these findings in intricate detail as each of his six photographs highlight an important feature of the creature's appearance and probable lifestyle. These amazing photos offer a tantalising glimpse into the amazing world of Confuciusornis, a world ruled by giant dinosaurs!

    The first of these photographs shows us an overall display of the entire Confuciusornis fossil slab. We can clearly see the entire creature in its death pose encased in a piece of rock. This overview shows us all of the features which make this creature so special (and set palaeontologists into frenzy mode) from its feathered wings and tail (or lack there of – more about this later) to its claws and its fully formed beak.

    The second photo is a close up of the bird’s tail area. We can tell that this particular specimen was a female because it lacked the long decorated ornamental tail which is only seen in the males. Dr. Davis was very clever in pointing this out with his photo as it is an important part of the animal’s physiology. Determining sexual morphology (the differences between ales and females of the same species) is considered very important by both palaeontologists and evolutionary biologists as a means of finding out why animals have changed over time in order to survive and what possible evolutionary advantages such changes and adaptations might hold.

    Dr. Davis’ third photo displays to us a close up of Confuciusornis’ legs with particular attentive detail given to the feet and toes. The focus is clearly on the bird’s toes and it is easy for us to count four toes on each foot. We can see the first toe is at the back (just like in the predatory dinosaurs) and is longer and more flexible than that of ground dwelling dinosaurs and birds. We can assume it was like this so Confuciusornis could perch itself on narrow tree branches just like modern birds do this very day! If we look at the middle toe on the left of the picture we can see that Dr. Davis is drawing attention to it. A keen eye can spot that it us unlike the other two remaining toes which were used primarily for walking and grasping things like branches. In fact the position of the toe and the somewhat larger than usual claw draws suspicion upon this bird. The little Confuciusornis may not have been as innocent as it looked. The way this toe is structured is eerily reminiscent of the predatory dinosaur Velociraptor mongoliensis (made famous, make that infamous by Stephen Spielberg’s monster smash hit movie Jurassic park) and its dromaeosaur cousins. This is concrete evidence of the link between birds and dinosaurs. Dr. Davis did well to point this out.

    The forth photo in this gallery is a detailed close up of that thing which makes a bird a bird, the beak. Here we can see a fully formed beak much like that of modern day birds and most unlike earlier birds such as Archaeopteryx lithographica (the first known bird with fully formed wings and flight feathers, but by no means the first ever creature to have modern flight feathers. A small predatory dinosaur which had only the beginnings of a beak at the front of its snout and a mouth full of teeth deserves this particular accolade, but that is a different story). We can clearly see in Dr. Davis’ photo that Confuciusornis was a more advanced creature than the earlier missing link Archaeopteryx. We also get a good look at the vertical neural feathers along its neck.

    Dr. Davis’ fifth photo shows us one of Confuciusornis’ wings. Even an untrained eye could easily spot three clawed fingers in the bottom right hand corner (two of which are quite long). Of course everyone knows birds’ wings are just modified arms with special flight feathers growing out of them, but what is interesting is the way the photograph’s focus is on the hand area of the specimen. Here we see three dinosaur claws proving that in addition to being a bird, Confuciusornis was also a dinosaur! So by this logical reason birds and dinosaurs are in fact one in the same! It is also worth taking note that there still remains a single species of bird that still lives (albeit in very small and declining numbers) in the Amazon rainforest this very day called the hoatzin which still has external claws on its wing fingers which it uses to climb trees. This “primitive” “living fossil” as modern science has named it shows us that in certain conditions keeping an “evolutionary left over” can be advantageous even when all of your relatives have decided to give up on and discard it.

    The sixth and final photo in Dr. Paul Davis’ Confuciusornis sanctus gallery is a picture of the creature’s other wing. This photo displays the same features synonymous with the previous photo but this time Dr. Davis draws our attention to the feathers covering Confuciusornis’ wings and chest. These are fully formed modern feathers just like the birds of today (and a few of the dinosaurs of years gone by).

    In conclusion I would like to point out that Dr. Paul Davis’ photo gallery of Confuciusornis sanctus is a prime example of and a credit to palaeo photography as a profession. Photos such as these are seen as indispensable in the respective fields of palaeontology and evolutionary biology as well as for people like me who merely enjoy these sciences on a hobby level. For this I am extremely grateful to Dr. Paul Davis.

    - Séan Markey