The plant-eating dinosaur Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus in its natural environment.
Sept. 15, 2011 --
A stunning array of prehistoric feathers, including dinosaur protofeathers, has been discovered in Late Cretaceous amber from Canada. The 78 to 79-million-year-old amber preserved the feathers in vivid detail, including some of their diverse colors. The collection, published in this week's Science, is among the first to reveal all major evolutionary stages of feather development in non-avian dinosaurs and birds. In this slide, an isolated barb from a vaned feather is visible trapped within a tangled mass of spider's web.
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"These specimens were most likely blown into the tacky resin, or were plucked from an animal as it brushed against resin on a tree trunk," lead author Ryan McKellar told Discovery News. "The fact that we have found some specimens trapped within spider webs in the amber would suggest that wind played an important role in bringing the feathers into contact with the resin," added McKellar, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta's Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. The feather filaments shown here are similar to protofeathers that have been associated with some dinosaur skeletons.
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McKellar and his team made the discovery after screening over 4,000 amber samples from Grassy Lake, Alberta. The amber, collected by the Leuck family, is now housed at the Royal Tyrrell Museum. The researchers ruled out that the inclusions were mammal hairs, plant or fungal remains based on their structure. Some dinosaur fossils retain skin impressions, so the scientists could match dinosaur protofeathers (hair-like projections) to some of the objects within the amber. Here, a feather is visible near a plant bug. The high number of coils in the this feather suggests it could have come from a water-diving bird.
The translucent tree resin provides a window into feather evolution, from non-avian dinosaurs to birds. "Part of what makes this particular set of feathers interesting is that we find the very simple Stage I and II feathers alongside advanced feathers that are very similar to those of modern birds, Stages IV and V," McKellar said. The researchers aren't yet certain why feathers first evolved, but the density of the protofeathers suggests that they helped dinosaurs with regulating temperature. Dinosaurs such as Troodon or Deinonychus may have produced the feathers. The cork-screw shaped structures in this slide are the tightly coiled bases of feather barbules.
As feathers continued to change, they developed tufts, barbs, branching features, little hooks, and more. Some of the most advanced feathers in the collection are comparable to those of modern grebes. They appear to help diving, indicating that some of the prehistoric birds were divers. McKellar suspects the marine birds might have been Hesperornithiformes, a specialized flightless diving bird from the Dinosaur Era. This is a white belly feather of a modern grebe, showing coiled bases comparable to those seen in the Cretaceous specimen.
Some of the feathers appear transparent now, but would have been white in life. A range of colors for the feathers is evident, though, with grays, reds and various shades of brown preserved. This, and prior research, suggests that non-avian dinosaurs and prehistoric birds could be quite flashy. The pigment within this fossilized feather suggests it would have originally been medium- or dark-brown in color.
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In an accompanying "Perspectives" article in Science, Mark Norell points out that the dinosaur Sinosauropteryx is thought to have had a reddish banded tail, while Anchiornis likely possessed a striking black body, banded wings and a reddish head comb. Norell, chair and curator of the American Museum of Natural History's Division of Paleontology, told Discovery News that the newly discovered feathers are "very exciting." Here, a feather barb within Late Cretaceous Canadian amber shows some indication of original coloration.
Some dino aficionados have wondered if DNA could be extracted from the feathers. "Almost anything is possible," Norell said, quickly adding that most DNA-extraction studies have been conducted on much younger amber, dating to around 20-30 million years ago, and even those led to questionable results. "Maybe bits and pieces could be identified, but not the whole genome." Shown are 16 clumped feathers in Late Cretaceous amber.
People with amber objects, such as jewelry, also probably don't have prehistoric feather inclusions, since such items are extremely rare and dealers isolate the best pieces. Nevertheless, McKellar said, "There is some hope that you could have small feather fragments that have been overlooked." An unpigmented feather and a mite in Canadian Late Cretaceous amber.
Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" might need a little more revising -- a newly discovered dinosaur species offers hints that feathers were much more common among the ancient beasts than once thought.
Researchers unearthed hundreds of fossils of a new genus and species of plant-eating dinosaur called Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus in Siberia that sports both feathers and scales. The finding suggests that most dinosaurs had feathers, which they used for insulation or attracting mates, only later relying on the fringes for flight, according to a study detailed today (July 24) in the journal Science.
"Here, for the first time, we have found featherlike structures in a dinosaur is far from the lineage leading to birds," said study co-author Pascal Godefroit, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Belgium. [See photos of these feathered dinosaurs]
Scientists have long known that birds descended from dinosaurs. Since the mid-1990s, paleontologists in China have been finding feathered dinosaur skeletons from about 20 different groups, but they all belonged to a single lineage, theropods, which includes Tyrannosaurus rex and velociraptors. In fact, some scientists believe T. rexmay have sported some feathers itself.
Godefroit and his colleagues found hundreds of skeletons of the same species, from a lineage of plant-eating dinosaurs known as ornithischians, which lived about 160 million years ago during the middle to late Jurassic period. Researchers found the fossils buried in the bottom of what appears to have been a large lake.
"It was a small animal, not very impressive," Godefroit said. It was about 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) long; walked on two long, slender legs; and sported very short arms, he said.
The little dinosaur skeleton was equipped with preserved long filaments resembling downy feathers around its arms and legs. Because the animal couldn't fly, the scientists think these filaments may have served as insulation. The specimen also had more-complex feathers that it may have used to entice mates, Godefroit said. The animal had a long tail, covered in large, thin scales.
The preservation of soft tissues such as feathers and scales is extremely rare, the researchers said, which explains why relatively few feathered dinosaur fossils have surfaced before. "The conditions for preserving feathers are really exceptional," Godefroit said.
"This is the first time birdlike feathers have been found in dinosaurs that are not closely related to birds," said Darla Zelenitsky, a paleontologist at the University of Calgary in Canada, who was not involved in the research. "This unexpectedly reveals that such feathers would likely have been present in most groups of dinosaurs," Zelenitsky told Live Science in an email.
Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, agreed that feathers probably existed in the common ancestor of all dinosaurs. The idea is not a new one, he said; two other fossils of plant-eating dinosaurs found in China had simple, filamentlike feathers, but it was debatable whether these were related to bird feathers, or evolved independently. Now, this new evidence "seals the deal that feathers were also present in plant-eating dinosaurs," Brusatte told Live Science.
As for the fossil scales, they resemble modern birds' scales, which are actually aborted feathers, the researchers said. In chickens, for example, genes in the skin control the development of feathers. If these genes are modified, the chicken will sprout feathers on its legs, like that of an English chicken. Perhaps primitive dinosaurs had already developed this genetic mechanism of preventing feathers from developing in certain parts of their bodies, Godefroit said.
More fossils must be found in order to determine if other groups of dinosaurs besides theropods and ornithischians had feathers, the researchers said. "We found [feathered fossils] in one locality in Siberia, and we will look around now to see if we can find more," Godefroit said.
Original article on Live Science.
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