Feathers fly over new dinosaur find

March 18, 2009 by Marlowe Hood
A computer-generated image of the Tianyulong confuciusi, a feathered heterodontosaurid ornithischian dinosaur. The discovery of a petite, plant-eating dinosaur with primitive plumage could mean that the dinosaur from which all others evolved had feather-like protrusions.

The discovery of a petite, plant-eating dinosaur with primitive plumage could mean that the dinosaur from which all others evolved had feather-like protrusions, said a study released Wednesday.

The find in northeastern is a scientific bombshell, further shattering the once axiomatic view that feathered birds and scaly reptiles developed along different evolutionary paths.

Fossils uncovered in China earlier this decade revealed for the first time feathered older than the winged Archaeopteryx predators -- long assumed to be the first with plumage -- that roamed the Late Jurassic skies some 150 million years ago.

But the new feather-packing dinosaur, dubbed Tianyulong confuciusi, represents an even more radical departure from old paradigms, according to the study, published in the scientific .

All dinosaurs fall into one of two large groups that split apart more than 200 million years ago.

The Saurischia group includes the lumbering, long-necked sauropods seen munching tree-tops in the film "Jurassic Park," along with the fearsome and all primitive birds, including Archaeopteryx.

The second group, Ornithischia, included armoured dinosaurs such as Tricerotps and , and was not -- despite the misleading name -- thought to include anything even remotely birdlike.

But Tianyulong, discovered at the Yixian Formation by a team led by Xiao-ting Zhao of the Tianyu Museum of Nature in Shandong Province, falls squarely in this second branch of dinosaur evolution.

This forces paleontologists to ask a fundamental question: Does the presence of proto-feathers on both main branches of dinosaur evolution mean they originated in a common ancestor?

Or did unrelated feather-like appendages -- including those giving rise to modern birds -- appear independently, and at a much later dates, in different groups of dinosaurs over the course of evolution?

The answer depends in part on whether Tianyulong's filament-like proto-feathers grew from inside its skin or on top of it -- whether, in other words, they are dermal or epidermal, notes Lawrence Witmer of Ohio University.

"If they are dermal, then they become interesting but not of monumental importance," he wrote in a commentary, also published in Nature. "If they are epidermal, then they take on great significance."

"The presence of epidermal, feather-like structures could mean that the ancestral dinosaur was a fuzzy (though maybe not a cuddly) animal," he wrote.

Unfortunately, fossil remains probably cannot give a definitive answer, Witmer said.

But they do yield clues. The filaments protruding from Tianyulong were probably hollow rather than solid, which would be consistent with an epidermal structure.

The spines of the feathers were also extremely long at the base of the tail, suggesting they were attached on the surface of the skin.

But "the ultimate question is whether they are part of the evolutionary lineage of true feathers or an independent evolution of projecting epidermal appendages," said Witmer.

For the moment, he concluded, the new addition to the dinosaur family -- while adding important new elements -- "has made an already confusing picture of feather origins even fuzzier."

Tianyulong -- literally, "dragon of the open sky" -- was about 70 centimetres (28 inches) long, more than half of its length taken up by its tail.

(c) 2009 AFP

Explore further: Ancient Birds Flew On All-Fours

Related Stories

Ancient Birds Flew On All-Fours

September 26, 2006

The earliest known ancestor of modern-day birds took to the skies by gliding from trees using primitive feathered wings on their arms and legs, according to new research by a University of Calgary paleontologist. In a paper ...

Wright Brothers Upstaged! Dinos Invented Biplanes

October 19, 2005

The evolution of airplanes from the Wright Brothers' first biplanes to monoplanes was an inadvertent replay of the much earlier evolution of dinosaur flight, say two dino flight experts.

Velociraptor had feathers

September 20, 2007

A new look at some old bones have shown that velociraptor, the dinosaur made famous in the movie Jurassic Park, had feathers. A paper describing the discovery, made by paleontologists at the American Museum of Natural History ...

Fossil feathers preserve evidence of color

July 9, 2008

The traces of organic material found in fossil feathers are remnants of pigments that once gave birds their color, according to Yale scientists whose paper in Biology Letters opens up the potential to depict the original ...

Recommended for you

How to cut your lawn for grasshoppers

November 22, 2017

Picture a grasshopper landing randomly on a lawn of fixed area. If it then jumps a certain distance in a random direction, what shape should the lawn be to maximise the chance that the grasshopper stays on the lawn after ...

Plague likely a Stone Age arrival to central Europe

November 22, 2017

A team of researchers led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has sequenced the first six European genomes of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis dating from the Late Neolithic ...

Ancient barley took high road to China

November 21, 2017

First domesticated 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, wheat and barley took vastly different routes to China, with barley switching from a winter to both a winter and summer crop during a thousand-year ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.