You’ve probably heard the notion before that dinosaurs were the ancestors of modern birds. But until now, little hard evidence of this connection has been available. Researchers announced on June 23 the discovery of several fossils that they say cement the dinosaur – bird link. They discovered fossils of two dinosaur species — one that had been described before, but not thoroughly studied, and another that had been entirely unknown before.
Both of the new fossil dinosaurs have a switch of feathers at the ends of their tails. The one that had never been identified before also bore feathers on its forearms. These feathered dinosaurs were probably unable to fly, much like modern penguins, emus and ostriches. And they were theropods — members of a group of dinosaurs that includes Velociraptors. Feathers and wings appear to have evolved first in dinosaurs before they appeared in the first bird — Archaeopteryx.
In 1996, a theropod dinosaur fossil was unveiled at a meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, which showed a patch of fluff that was taken by some to be proto-feathers, by others to be merely a downy covering, and, less charitably, by others to be some kind of artifact of the preservation process. This controversial dinosaur was dubbed Sinosauropteryx. These latest discoveries, on the other hand, clearly show dinosaurs with the kinds of feathers we see on birds today.
So if these dinosaurs had feathers, why don’t we call them birds? It’s partly for semantic reasons. Scientists define birds as Archaeopteryx — an ancient and extinct animal — and its descendants — the Neornithes, or modern birds. This is a working definition, not the one most of us use from day to day. It certainly leaves room for other non-bird animals to have feathers or to even have the ability to fly.
The findings were announced at a June meeting of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. by the research team — Ji Qiang and Ji Shu-An of the National Geological Museum in Beijing; Philip J. Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alberta; and Mark A. Norell of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The researchers made the discoveries in the Liaoning province of China.
- “Feathered Dinosaurs Found in China” (Science News, vol. 153, June 27, 1998)
- “Our Fine Feathered Friends!” (Nature, 25 June 1998, Vol. 393, No. 6687)