A small dinosaur that once roamed northeastern China was covered with a stiff, hairlike fuzz, a discovery that suggests feathers began to evolve much earlier than many researchers believe — maybe even in the earliest dinosaurs [AP]. A newly discovered fossil sporting traces of feather-like structures surprised researchers, because it belongs to the ornithischian group of dinosaurs. All previous fuzzy dinosaurs have been found in the saurischian group–specifically among therapods, which includes carnivores like Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor. “Finding a Chinese dinosaur with feathers is not remarkable, but finding one on the wrong side of the dinosaur family tree is,” says Lawrence Witmer, a vertebrate paleontologist [Science News].
Finding proto-feathers on both side of the family tree suggests that the feature may have evolved around 220 million years ago in a common ancestor for ornithischians and saurischians; previously, researchers posited that the first feathered dinosaurs appeared around 150 million years ago. This has raised the question of whether many more of the creatures may have been covered with similar bristles, or “dino-fuzz” [BBC News].
The fossil of this new species, named Tianyulong confuciusi, boasts three patches of proto-feathers that are stiffer and simpler than modern feathers, without a central shaft and vanes. Longer filaments on the tail suggest that the feathers were used primarily for display, researchers say. Coauthor Hai-Lu You, coauthor of the new study in Nature, believes that the fossil supports the idea of a single evolution of feathers. “We still have some missing data between T. confuciusi and feathered theropod dinosaurs, but I think further discovery will fill these gaps,” he says. If this proves to be true, then many dinosaurs may once have sported feather-like structures, with descendant species losing the characteristic later on [Nature News].
However, Witmer also says it’s possible that feathers evolved several separate times throughout dinosaurs’ time on earth. “Perhaps the only clear conclusion that can be drawn … is that little Tianyulong has made an already confusing picture of feather origins even fuzzier” [AP], Witmer wrote in a commentary in Nature.
80beats: To Attract Mates, This Dino May Have Shaken a Tail Feather
80beats: Stay-at-Home Dinosaur Dads May Have Hatched Eggs and Cared for Young
80beats: “Bizarre” and Fluffy Dino May Have Used Feathers to Attract Mates
80beats: Carnivorous Dinosaur With Bird-Like Lungs Discovered
Image: Li-Da Xing