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Fine Feathered Find

By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence

New York, NY (4/25/01)- The discovery of a feather-covered dinosaur in Northern China raises questions not only about the origins of birds, but about the nature of dinosaurs themselves. The remarkably intact specimen strengthens the case for the theory that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs, while suggesting that many other dinosaurs may have had feathers to keep them warm.

The fossil skeleton, estimated to be somewhere between 126-147 million years old, was discovered by a team of American and Chinese scientists in the Yixian Formation in the Liaoning Province, China. Feather-like tufts and barbs can be seen on other parts of the specimen. It is the first ever dinosaur to be unearthed with its body covering intact. The researchers were stunned to find that the body was covered in fine, feather-like filaments. The specimen has been identified as a type of dromaeosaur, cousin to the velociraptor brought so frighteningly to life in "Jurassic Park". The find may ruffle some feathers in the paleontology community, where a debate continues to rage, on the link, or lack of link between dinosaurs and birds.The new discovery suggests that feathers preceded not only birds, but flight as well.

"This fossil radically modifies our vision of these extinct animal. It shows us that advanced theropod dinosaurs may have looked more like weird birds than giant lizards,"" said Mark Norell, Chairman of the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History.

Dromaeosaurs are part of the theropod group of dinosaurs. There has been a consensus among many, but not all, paleontologists, that the striking number of anomatic similarities between theropods and modern birds suggests that this is the most likely link between dinosaurs and the bird world. Since the middle of the 19th century, scientists have noticed that modern birds and therapods share a number of major skeletal characteristics including: the shape and position of the pubic bone; elongated arms with claws; hollow, thin bones; and stiffened tails. The fact that reptiles have scales, which are produced by tissues similar to feathers, and that birds have scales on their feet has also not been overlooked. Finally, it is hard to miss the most obvious similarity of all, the fact that both lay eggs.

This is not the first example of feather-like structures to be discovered at the Yixian Formation fossil beds. During the past five years many fragments have been unearthed. However, the incomplete nature of those finds made it difficult to assert with certainty which bone belonged with which skeleton. The new find is virtually complete. Since dromaeosaurs are known to be more primitive than birds, the new fossils lends support to the idea that feathers developed before flight. Researchers speculate that the feathery coat may have helped the dinosaurs to keep warm, or may have been used to attract mates.

"This is the specimen we've been waiting for. It makes it indisputable that a body covering similar to feathers was present in non-avian dinosaurs," asserted Ji Qiang, of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, leader of the expedition.

The research appears in the April 26, 2001 issue of the journal Nature. The fossil is on loan from the National Geological Museum of China to the American Museum of Natural History. It can be seen at that New York City location from April 25.


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