Sinornithosaurus (Chinese bird-lizard) was a turkey-size creature that had fierce-looking fangs that were long, grooved and venomous. It also probably had flight feathers on its back legs, which made it a four- winged gliding predator.
This is the first report of venom in the lineage that leads to modern birds, scientists say.
Larry Martin, a KU scientist who helped discover and describe it, says the creature - as possibly the world's first-known venomous bird - is going to shake up all the known science about bird history.
While he and the other three scientists involved are careful to say in their scientific paper that Sino is a "birdlike creature," and a "raptor closely related to birds," Martin goes further.
"I have a habit of deciding that if it looks like a bird and quacks like a bird, it's a bird," Martin said. "This is a bird." The fangs made this creature look almost like a saber-tooth, he said.
Martin, the senior curator of vertebrate paleontology in the Biodiversity Institute at KU, is an internationally known authority on ancient birds and mammals, dinosaurs, climate change, evolution, and the fossil history of disease. Chinese paleontologists often invite him to China when they dig up never-before-described creatures.
He said Sinornithosaurus thrived 128 million years ago in heavily canopied tropical pine and fern forests of China; after they died, the fossil specimens ended up embedded and preserved in the muddy bottom of a lake.
The world was different then, Martin said: Temperatures were warmer; there was little or no ice at the North and South poles. Grass and flowering plants were only beginning to emerge and leafy trees had not yet appeared on the Earth; forests were made up of pines, ginkgo trees and ferns.
The Rocky Mountains had not yet risen from the North American plains; dinosaurs thrived, and mammals were all mouse- or shrew-like creatures that hid from predators like this one.
The KU-China team's findings will be published in the early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science this week. "We think it's going to make a big splash," Martin said.
The KU scientists traveled to China several times to study and describe the fossils. Martin said Sinornithosaurus is a relative of velociraptor, made famous in the movie "Jurassic Park."