Jeholornis had long tails and few small teeth, and were approximately the size of turkeys, making them among the largest birds known until the Late Cretaceous. Their diet included seeds of cycads, Ginkgo or similar plants.
Jeholornis were relatively large, primitive birds, with a maximum adult length of up to 80 cm (2.6 ft). Their skulls were short and high, similar to other primitive avialans like Epidexipteryx and to early oviraptorosaurs like Incisivosaurus. The lower jaws were short, stout, and curved downward, possibly an adaptation for eating seeds. Jeholornis prima lacked teeth in their upper jaws, and had only three small teeth in their lower jaws, while J. palmapenis had a few teeth in the middle of the upper jaw (maxilla) but none in the front (premaxillae). The upper teeth of J. palmapenis seem to have been angled slightly forward as in some other basal avialans. The teeth in both species were small, blunt and peg-like with no serrations.
Their arms were robust and longer than the legs, with relatively well-developed shoulder girdles indicating strong wing musculature. Their fingers were short compared to those of Archaeopteryx and also more robust. The lower legs were not particularly long, indicating that these animals were not specialized runners. The first toe, or hallux, which is reversed in modern birds and used to perch in trees, was only partially reversed in both Jeholornis species, pointing inward and slightly backward. The halluces of Jeholornis were short, but their claw was more strongly curved than those of the other toes. Unlike deinonychosaurs and some other Mesozoic birds, the claw of the second toe was not enlarged relative to the other claws. Their tail anatomy was more like those of dromaeosaurids than Archaeopteryx, with more strongly interlocking vertebrae, and though they had a similar number of tail vertebrae (between 20 and 24) those of Jeholornis were much longer overall than those of Archaeopteryx. The only well-preserved tail feathers come from the type specimen of J. palmapenis.
A study by Erickson in 2009 has shown that Jeholornis (along with Archaeopteryx) had relatively slow ontogenic development, i.e. they grew very slowly, compared to most modern birds, which grow very quickly. The living kiwi birds however, have slow development, and it has been speculated that Jeholornis could have had a metabolism similar to these
Feather traces from the wing have only been identified in two specimens, LPM 0193 (J. prima) and (SDM 20090109.1 (J. palmapenis). The first specimen shows that the flight feathers were asymmetrical (and therefore aerodynamic, as in modern flying birds) and up to 21 centimeters long, longer than the forearm and hand combined. The exact number of flight feathers cannot be determined from known specimens, however, as the preservation is too poor.
The tails of several specimens preserve a fan of feathers (rectrices) at the tip, shorter than those on the forelimbs. The feather fan is similar to those of Microraptor and Caudipteryx, being restricted to the tip of the tail, unlike those of Archaeopteryx and Similicaudipteryx which have rectrices extending down the much of the tail length. In at least one species, Jeholornis palmapenis, there were 11 tail feathers. The feathers were short and pointed, and arched away from the body of the tail, so that the entire array of tail feathers resembled a palm frond. The tail feathers did not overlap, and so could not have formed a lift-generating surface, so the tail was probably used mainly for display.
Classification and specimensEdit
Jeholornis contains at least two species: the type species, Jeholornis prima (named in reference to the Jehol group of fossil beds where it was found, and the primitive appearance of the tail) and one referred species, Jeholornis palmapenis described by Jingmai O'Connor and colleagues in 2012. The name J. palmapenis translates to "palm tail" in reference to the unusual arrangement of its tail feathers.
A total of five specimens have been formally described. The type specimen is in the collection of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. It is catalogued as IVPP V13274, and was reported in the journal Nature in 2002. Two more specimens were later accessioned by the IVPP as V 13550 and V 13553 and they were reported in the journal Naturwissenschaften in 2003. Another specimen is in the collection of the Liaoning Provincial Museum of Paleontology, and is catalogued as LPM 0193 it was reported as a new species, Shenzhouraptor sinensis, in the journal The Geological Bulletin of China in 2002, but is likely a junior synonym of Jeholornis. An additional specimen, named as the new species Jixiangornis orientalis in the Journal of Nanjing University (Natural Sciences) (also in 2002) is also considered by most scientists to be a synonym of Jeholornis prima.
Shenzhouraptor sinensis (the name of which is derived from "Shenzhou", an ancient name for China, and "raptor", Latin for "violent plunderer") was described in the July 2002 issue of Geological Bulletin of China by Ji et al., the same month as Jeholornis was described by Zhou and Zhang. Two of the diagnostic characteristics which could have distinguished Shenzhouraptor from Jeholornis were its smaller size and the absence of teeth, which may be attributed to age and preservational bias. The other major difference was a different number of caudal vertebrae, though Zhou and Zhang showed in 2003 that the specimen was missing several of the proximal caudals.
Several scientists have come to the conclusion that Jeholornis and Shenzhouraptor are specimens of the same species. However, both names were published in print within days of each other, and there was initially controversy over which name should be considered official. The date on the article describing Jeholornis was July 25, 2002. The discovery of Shenzhouraptor was reported in at least one newspaper on July 23, 2002, though the official paper naming the species, published in a monthly journal, did not bear a specific date of issue. In 2003, Ji and colleagues made Jeholornis a junior synonym of Shenzhouraptor. In 2006, Zhou and Zhang noted that the ICZN gives priority to these over monthly journals, and argued that because of this Jeholornis has priority over Shenzhouraptor. Most studies have since treated Jeholornis prima as the valid name for the species, pending further study to confirm whether or not Shenzhouraptor sinensis is in fact the same species.