New Birdlike Dino Adds to Debate on Origins of Flight

Nicholas Bakalar
for National Geographic News
October 18, 2005
Using rock saws and a chisel, paleontologists working in Argentina's Rio Negro province have extracted the nearly complete skeleton of a rooster-size dinosaur.

The skeleton, from a group known as dromaesaurs, is about 90 million years old. Its presence in South America demonstrates that these birdlike dinosaurs probably arose much earlier than previously believed, according to the scientists who discovered the fossil.

What's more, the structure of the creature indicates it had feathers but did not fly, suggesting that the species might be a "missing link" in determining the origins of flight.

Until now dromaesaurs have been found only in the Northern Hemisphere. Paleontologists had assumed that the species arose after Pangea, the Earth's original landmass, separated into Laurasia to the north and Gondwana to the south.

But the new discovery means that dromaesaurs must have appeared before the landmasses separated, about 150 million years ago.

The recently unearthed fossil, probably that of an adult animal, is in excellent condition. Only a few bones from other partial discoveries were needed to complete a fully articulated skeleton.

All together, four separate Buitreraptor fossils have now been found in the same region. But the latest is the most complete, what paleontologists call the holotype, or definitive example of a species.

Fast Runner, Long Leaper

Several other species of northern dromaesaurs are known, including the feathered dinosaurs Microraptor and Sinornithaurus, both found in China.

The southern dromaesaur, Buitreraptor gonzalezorum, looks very different from its northern cousins. The paleontologists that found the latest Buitreraptor fossil believe it may actually represent a separate branch of the dromaesaurid family, named unenlagines.

The newly discovered animal is closely related to Velociraptor mongoliensis, the clever, fast-running predatory dinosaurs made famous in the movie Jurassic Park.

The dromaesaur had a long, beak-like snout; small widely spaced teeth; and a long tail. The odd proportions of its skull may have been an adaptation for hunting small burrowing mammals and reptiles, whose skeletons have been found near the remains of Buitreraptor.

Its long back legs suggest it was a fast runner. It likely used its muscled shoulders and the enlarged claw on the second toe of each forelimb to grasp its prey. The animal did not fly, but its back legs almost certainly gave it the ability to leap several yards.

Feathers rarely survive fossilization, and the fossil of Buitreraptor showed no evidence of them.

But Sebastian Apesteguía, a professor at Maimonides University in Buenos Aires and a co-author of the paper, is certain that the animal was feathered like its northern cousins.

Buitreraptor's evolutionary relationships, he said, virtually assure this. "If you find the bones of a monkey," he said, "you would not dare to imagine it was bald, because you know that monkeys and their relatives are hairy."

Since Buitreraptor's close relatives had feathers, it certainly did as well, he said.

The find was reported in the October 13 issue of Nature, which includes an artist's rendering of a very birdlike animal covered with small, almost hairlike feathers.

Longer feathers on the forelimbs make them look like stubby wings.

"The artistic reconstruction is based on accurate dimensions of the skeleton of Buitreraptor," said Peter J. Makovicky, the paper's lead author.

"We also chose a fairly drab color scheme, so the poetic license was kept to a minimum," Makovicky, a geologist with Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, said.

Wing Evolution

According to Apesteguía of Maimonides University, fossil evidence suggests two theories about the evolution of flight.

The first is that wings may have developed in the common ancestor of birds and raptors.

"So their presence in southern raptors is not a novelty, but an atavism—an old feature that persisted in the evolution of the species, like the hind limbs in pythons," he said.

Alternatively, he said, some believe that wings evolved twice—once in birds and once in the southern raptors, which developed wings from their extremely long forelimbs.

Analysis of the relationship between Buitreraptor and its close cousins favors the hypothesis that wings evolved twice, Apesteguía said, because true wings are not present in Buitreraptor, the oldest and most primitive of the southern dromaeosaurs.

Paul Sereno, professor of paleontology at the University of Chicago, believes the new fossil "is very interesting and highly significant" because it might help answer questions about the origins of flight.

"Flight, or at least some flight capacity, may have arisen more than once," he said.

"This [find] adds to evidence from fossils and recent biomechanical studies on birds that the transition to flight was not night and day, but that there exists lots of useful and adaptive states for what might be termed poor fliers—this new species may have been one of them."

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