Tag: Tianyulong

Tianyulong – a fuzzy dinosaur that makes the origin of feathers fuzzier

By Ed Yong | March 18, 2009 1:00 pm

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWhat happens when you find a feathered dinosaur that really isn’t meant to have feathers? That’s the question set by a spectacular new fossil that adds a confusing dimension to the origin of feathers.

The concept of dinosaurs with feathers is no longer surprising. Birds certainly have them and they are now considered to be living dinosaurs. The infamous Velociraptor and its relatives were covered in plumes, which ranged from the simple quills of Sinosauropteryx to the flight-capable plumes on Microraptor‘s four wings. We know about these prehistoric feathers through the beautiful fossil impressions they have left behind, but a new set of impressions may be the most impressive yet.

They were discovered by Chinese scientists led by Xiao-Ting Zheng, who named their new discovery Tianyulong confuciusi, after the museum that Zheng works in and the famous Chinese philosopher. Its small, agile body,  about the size of a cat, was covered in long, hollow filaments that closely resemble the primitive “proto-feathers” (or colloquially, “dinofuzz”) of other dinosaurs. What makes Tianyulong unique is that it is a very distant relative of all these other feathered species.

Tianyulong.jpg

So far, all feathered dinosaurs are theropods, a group of two-legged and (mostly) carnivorous animals that included Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor, and indeed, modern birds. The theropods belong one of the two major groups of dinosaurs, the Saurischia. Tianyulong, however, is a clear member of the other dinosaur lineage, the Ornithischia, which include the various armoured, horned, spiked and duck-billed species. This is the first time that anyone has discovered an ornithischian with feather-like structures all over its body.

More specifically, Tianyulong is a heterodontosaur, a group of small plant-eaters that are the most primitive of the ornithischians. Its position in the dinosaur family tree raises big questions about the origins of feathers. If its filaments are related to the proto-feathers of the theropods (which is possible but not certain), they either evolved independently or were derived from filaments that covered the very earliest of dinosaurs.

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