Friday, August 10, 2012

The Strange Bird Dalianraptor cuhe

Type specimen of D. cuhe, originally posted by Andrea Cau
I'm interrupting my regularly scheduled upcoming blog posts to bring some attention to a little-known Jehol bird: the strange 'jeholornithid'-grade species Dalianraptor cuhe.

D. cuhe has spent the last several years as a species in obscurity, even among most paleontology enthusiasts. I recall my first glimpse of the type specimen, wondering over the seemingly-complete remains of an "undescribed possible dromaeosauird" in a low-res photo posted online in the early '00s. I can remember saving the image to my reference folder, hoping that one day I'd be able to update the file name. It's a fascinating animal, but... is it real?

D. cuhe was finally published by Gao and Liu in 2005, but as the description was in Chinese (and to my knowledge has never been translated), it slipped mostly under everyone's radar. As pointed out in its Theropod Database entry, few publications have mentioned it. Chiappe and Dyke (2006) noted that it was similar to, but distinct from, Jeholornis prima. Indeed, it looked a lot like Jeholornis, save for one major detail-- it's absolutely puny (for a eumaniraptoran) arms. The arms were so short, it looked like it may have been a flightless member of a 'jeholornithid' lineage.

Unfortunately, the specimen proved to be problematic. In their description of Jeholornis palmapenis, Jingmai O'Connor and colleagues stated that they did not consider Dalianraptor in their study because the type specimen had been "tampered" with. In the comments to his recent post on the bird chapter in the new book The Complete Dinosaur, 2nd Edition, Darren Naish hinted that D. cuhe may indeed be based on a composite specimen. As with most fossil forgeries, this would have probably been done by the collectors who found the specimen to increase its completeness when attempting to sell it to private collectors or to museums. Note that none of this has been published yet and so is simply dino gossip in its truest form, aside from the brief mention in the J. palmapenis paper: I bring attention to it here mainly as a warning for researchers or artists who are considering using this species/specimen as a reference. My advice: hold off for now, a paper may be forthcoming.

So, if it is a composite, where does this leave the bulk of the D. cuhe skeleton? While it seems likely the main body is that of a Jeholornis, it will still require a good re-study to determine if it's a synonym of J. prima or can be retained as its own species, taking into account a good examination to determine which parts are real and which are fake/come from different specimens, etc.

So, here's to D. cuhe: You would have made a great field guide entry, but now you're getting the axe.
I kinda liked this one too. Oh well.
Image copyright M. Martyniuk
For more on the original interpretation of Dalianraptor, see Andrea Cau's 2008 blog post (see translation link at top of the page).

  • Chiappe and Dyke (2006). "The early evolutionary history of birds." Journal of the Paleontological Society of Korea, 22(1), 133-151. 
  • Gao and Liu (2005). "A new avian taxon from Lower Cretaceous Jiufotang Formation of western Liaoning." Global Geology, 24(4), 313-316.
  • O'Connor, Sun, Xu, Wang and Zhou (2012). "A new species of Jeholornis with complete caudal integument." Historical Biology, 24(1): 29-41.


  1. You could still include it; just have a section on the bird that wasn't.

  2. Note that my post was written in 2008: as I wrote at the end of the post itself, regardless of its status, a redescription is necessary. I was aware of the re-evaluation of Dalianraptor as a possible chimaera and thus omitted it from my phylogenetic analysis since 2010, but preferred not to explicitly state it in the blog since it was a personal communication.

  3. I am now slightly concerned that I have let slip some info not yet in print - I may edit the Tet Zoo article accordingly (my book chapter does not refer to the composite nature).

  4. @Darren
    Fair enough. I've edited this article to be a bit more equivocal as well and note that this is all pending published research.

  5. I actually had the description translated for inclusion in the Lori analysis, though now that seems useless.

    Note O'Connor et al. (2012) took Dalianraptor out of her analysis with this rationale- "Dalianornis cuhe, a taxon whose avian status is controversial, was removed." As it was submitted half a year earlier than the palmapenis paper, O'Connor knew it was a composite at the time, which makes her later stated reasoning misleading at best. Amusingly, Dalianornis is a typo here, but in O'Connor et al. (2011), it was an accidentally leaked early name for Shenquiornis that didn't get corrected.

  6. "Shenquiornis"

    Shenqiornis. Q in the Pinyin transcription isn't what it seems, it's roughly speaking between c (aspirated [ts]) and ch.