Scaly New Dinosaur Creates Flap Over Feathers' Evolution

March 15, 2006

The fossil of a small, predatory dinosaur discovered in Germany has experts rethinking how feathers developed among the dinosaurs that likely gave rise to birds.

The small, long-tailed predator lived some 150 million years ago. Experts say the fossil represents the best example of a European dinosaur from this period. The fossil was discovered in limestone rock from Bavaria, in southern Germany (map).

The specimen includes sections of fossilized skin that shows no evidence of feathers, despite the fact that the dinosaur's Jurassic-age contemporaries from the same group were feathered.

Described in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature, the new species, Juravenator starki, belongs to a group of theropods—meat-eating, two-legged dinosaurs—that many scientists believe also gave rise to birds.

The authors say the new species undermines the notion that a covering of simple, hairlike feathers was characteristic of such early theropods as was previously believed.

"Given the worldwide rarity of complete specimens of small theropods from the Jurassic, the exceptionally well-preserved skeleton of Juravenator is in itself a notable find," writes paleontologist Xing Xu in a commentary accompanying the study.

"Most significantly," he writes, "the specimen preserves scaled skin around the tail and hind limbs. This is a big surprise."

The find will encourage a re-evaluation of feather evolution in dinosaurs, adds Xu, who teaches at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China.

Luis Chiappe, associate curator at California's Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, and Ursula Gohlich of the University of Munich in Germany report the find in the Nature study.

Earliest Bird

The area where Juravenator was found is famous as the source of fossils of Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird.

"The new fossil is the best preserved predatory, nonavian dinosaur in Europe," the study authors write.

Continued on Next Page >>


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