for National Geographic News
An 80-million-year-old fossil recently uncovered in the Gobi desert could be a key piece of the evolutionary puzzle of how massive dinosaurs gave rise to today's comparatively tiny birds, paleontologists say.
The newfound species, dubbed Mahakala omnogovae, measures just 27.5 inches (70 centimeters) from its head to the tip of its feathered tail.
Dinosaur digs over the last decade—including many in China—have suggested that several of the ancient reptiles were covered in feathers, a hint of their potential link to birds.
(Related: "Massive Birdlike Dinosaur Unearthed in China" [June 13, 2007].)
But few of the fossils have provided direct evidence of the evolutionary changes that led to flight.
Mahakala's small size bolsters the idea that some theropods, or bipedal carnivorous dinosaurs, decreased in stature during the evolutionary transition into birds, according to the team of paleontologists who discovered the young adult fossil.
"Miniaturization has long been considered crucial to the origin of flight," said Alan Turner of New York's American Museum of Natural History.
"Now Mahakala is providing the first signs of some of these early evolutionary steps."
Turner and colleagues will present their findings in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.
The Mahakala fossil was found in the southern part of the Gobi in Mongolia and was named after a Tibetan Buddhist protector deity.
Paleontologists reconstructed Mahakala based on fossilized portions of the dinosaur's skull and limbs along with most of its spinal column.
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