Breakthrough: The Avian Authority

This video is a part of Breakthrough, a short film anthology from Science Friday and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) that follows women working at the forefront of their fields. Learn more and watch the films on our Breakthrough spotlight.

When paleontologist Jingmai O’Connor looks at the abdomen of a small, ancient avian fossil, she gets a thrill when she spots a jumble of nodules, no bigger than a scattering of goosebumps, protruding from the creature’s bones. Their presence could mean the animal’s metabolism supported rapid egg growth. In another specimen, O’Connor discovers an entire bird gobbled up inside of a chicken-sized feathered dinosaur, revealing a clue about the ecology in which both animals lived.

O’Connor’s obsessive eye for detail and encyclopedic knowledge of morphology comes in handy when she’s placing these fossils on the ancient family tree of birds. She credits those skills, as well as her enthusiasm for science, to her mother, a geochemist who earned her Ph.D. while raising O’Connor and her three siblings. It was also her mother’s influence that led O’Connor to focus on geology—and to explore her own Chinese-American roots—by focusing her studies on the scores of bird fossils coming out of China at the turn of the century.

Dozens of discoveries later, O’Connor is now a professor at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology in Beijing where she uses the world’s largest collection of avian dinosaurs to explore the changes in ancient species that led to wings, tail feathers, flight, and many other adaptations seen in modern birds. 

Further Reading

  • Learn more about O’Conner’s research on her website.

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Produced in collaboration with HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

Directed and Produced by Luke Groskin

Director of Photography Kartsen Hohmann and Christian Baker

Edited by Erika Sutter and Luke Groskin

Animations by Luke Groskin and Lottie Kingslake

Paleo-Illustrations by Gabriel Ugueto

Music by Audio Network

On-Location Production Support by Karsten Hohmann

Series Producer Luke Groskin

Additional Photos and Video Provided by Jingmai O’Connor, Pond5 Shutterstock, University of Southern California

Project Advisors for HHMI Tangled Bank Studios – Richard Stone and Aileen O’Hearn

Project Support for Science Friday Initiative by Danielle Dana, Jennifer Fenwick, Ariel Zych Nadja Oertelt, Kyle Marian Viterbo, Diana Montano Daniel Peterschmidt, Xochitl Garcia, Nahima Ahmed

Special Thanks to Jingmai O’Connor, Yuet-Ling O’Connor, Alida Bailleul, Wang Min Wu Quian, Jennifer Shalant, Christian Skotte The Institute of Vertabrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropolgy

Meet the Producer

About Luke Groskin

Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.

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