China's Leading Dinosaur Hunter Has Many Feathers In His Cap

By Ashley P. Taylor | September 6, 2012 9:38 am

Archaeopteryx lithographica

Birds are the modern descendants of dinosaurs, but the exact details of the family tree are controversial. Archaeopteryx, the winged creature found in German fossil beds whose name means “first from a feather,” was long thought to be the first bird. Last summer, a Nature paper by Xu Xing, of China’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, claimed that Archaeopteryx was related to birds but actually belonged on a separate branch of the tree, with other bird-like dinosaurs.

Scientists still debate the rightful place of Archaeopteryx in the dinosaur-bird lineage, but what’s undisputed are Xu’s contributions to paleontology. He has named 60 dinosaur species, more than any other living paleontologist, and his stamping grounds are the fossil beds of Liaoning Province, northeast of Beijing, where many of the feathered dinosaurs and early birds were discovered. Kerri Smith enumerates Xu Xing’s contributions to the study of birds and their dinosaur relatives in a profile at Nature News:

In describing the flock of feathered fossils, Xu has helped to show that birds arose from dinosaurs, ending decades of debate. Along the way, he has shed light on the origins of feathers and flight. And he has bucked 150 years of received wisdom by declaring that the fabled genus Archaeopteryx is not the oldest known bird, but rather belonged to a group of dinosaurs removed from the avian line. “He has patience and persistence — and an audacity when scientific evidence calls for it,” says Zhe-Xi Luo, who studies fossil mammals at the University of Chicago in Illinois.”

And what is he up to these days? Well, according to the profile, Xu is now studying herbivorous beaked dinosaurs, ceratopsians, which include the famous Triceratops, found in a fossil bed near the town of Zhucheng south of Beijing. He’s also consulting for a dinosaur theme park that administrators are planning there.

Read more at Nature News.

Image courtesy of H. Raab / Wikimedia Commons

  • tall blue ape

    “Paleontologists think”? Sure, about the same way that climatologists “think” that rain comes from clouds, or psychologists “think” that memories come from the brain. There is a hardly a more secure phylogeny than Aves…

    • Veronique Greenwood

      You’re right, that wasn’t the best phrasing. I’ve changed it.

  • Ben Wise

    I was startled to see you translate “Archaeopteryx” as “first from a feather.” -pteryx means “wing” and is used commonly in biological terminology in this context (e.g., pterosaurs, pterodactyl, the insect orders Diptera, Lepidoptera, etc.,) and sometimes referring to “wing-like” appendages (Crossopterygian), the wing-like pterygoid process of the sphenoid bone, and countless other examples!!
    Also, “archae” means ancient, not first! Where did you get your erroneous translation, and why didn’t you check it out??

  • E. rex

    “Xu is now studying duck-billed dinosaurs, ceratopsians, which include the famous Triceratops…” Duck-billed dinosaurs are hadrosaurids, not ceratopsians.

  • Ashley P. Taylor

    Thanks for your correction! According to the Nature News article, Xu is indeed studying ceratopsians. I’d mischaracterized that group of dinosaurs and have now corrected the mistake.


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