First Dinosaur Feathers for Show, Not Flight?

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"One can certainly imagine [the teeth] being used to snatch at small prey, such as lizards, small mammals, or even insects," Zhang said.

Epidexipteryx's anatomy seems to be a hodgepodge of features taken from a variety of animals.

For instance, its front limb bones and short, bony tail resemble those of living birds. But its short, high skull and large front teeth look like those of small theropods called oviraptors.

"It's not uncommon for features present in one group to appear independently in another," Zhang said of the newfound dino's "bizarre" anatomy.

"It's also typical for different parts of the body to evolve at different rates, so that some bits end up looking very specialized whereas others remain primitive."

(See pictures of other "bizarre" dinosaurs.)

Zhang and his colleagues report their findings this week in the journal Nature.

Evolution Experiments?

Luis Chiappe is a paleontologist with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and a former National Geographic Society grantee. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

He said that the mosaic of features suggests "there was a lot of evolutionary experimentation around the origin of birds, with many different kinds of lineages reaching different levels of 'birdness.'"

But Chiappe, who was not involved in the new study, is skeptical of the idea that feathers originated as ornaments.

"Feathers could have served an aerodynamic function of some sort whether you fly or not. You could flap feathered wings and run faster," he said.

"Still, these ornamental feathers are a really interesting new piece of evidence into why feathers first originated."

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