Jan. 22, 2013 — In a paper published in Nature Communications on January 22, 2013, a team of paleontologists including Dr. Luis Chiappe, Director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's (NHM) Dinosaur Institute, has discovered a way to determine the sex of a prehistoric bird species.
Confuciusornis sanctus, a 125-million-year-old Mesozoic bird, had remarkable differences in plumage -- some had long, almost body length ornamental tail feathers, others had none -- features that have been interpreted as the earliest example of avian courtship. However, the idea that male Confuciusornis birds had ornamental plumage, and females did not, has not been proven until now. Chiappe and the team studied hundreds of Confuciusornis fossils unearthed from rocks deposited at the bottom of ancient lakes in what is today northeastern China and found undisputed evidence of the gender difference: medullary bone.
Chiappe conducted the study with Anusuya Chinsamy of the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa; Jesús Marugán-Lobón of Madrid's Universidad Autonóma, Cantoblanco; Gao Chunling and Zhang Fengjiao of the Dalian Natural History Museum in China.
"Our discovery provides the first case of sex identification in an ancient bird, an animal closely related to dinosaurs, such as the famous Velociraptor," said Chiappe. "When people visit dinosaur exhibits, they often want to know if the skeletons are male or female. We have nicknames like Thomas and Sue, but of all the thousands of skeletons of dinosaurs or early birds found around the world, only the sex of a few has been determined."