Dino-bird from China gives clues to bird evolution

23 October 2008

A fossil of a ‘bizarre’ feathered dinosaur giving new clues to how birds evolved from small meat-eating dinosaurs has been discovered, the journal Nature reports today.

Illustration of the feathered dinosaur Epidexipteryx

Illustration of feathered dinosaur Epidexipteryx © Reconstructed by Qui Ji & Xing Lida

The pigeon-sized dinosaur called Epidexipteryx lived around 168-152 million years ago in the Middle to Late Jurassic. It lived before the oldest known bird and had long tail feathers but no flight feathers seen in other bird-like dinosaurs.

‘This exquisitely preserved fossil is an exciting and totally unexpected find,’ says Dr Angela Milner, dinosaur expert at the Natural History Museum.

‘It had a fluffy down-like covering but sprouted four enormously long ribbon-like shafted tail feathers that could only have been used for display.’

‘It shows that feathers were likely being used for ornamentation for many millions of years before they were modified for flight.’

Uncovering the new species
Epidexipteryx had long tail feathers that it used for displaying

Epidexipteryx had long tail feathers that it used for displaying © Reconstructed by Zhao Chuang & Xing Lida

Fucheng Zhang and colleagues from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, described the new species. The fossil was uncovered from the Daohugou beds, in Nincheng County, Inner Mongolia.

Epidexipteryx, meaning ‘display wing/feather’, belongs to a group, or clade of bird-like dinosaurs called Avialae. It is a distantly related to the oldest known bird Archaeopteryx that lived about 147 million years ago.

Other feathered-dinosaurs

There have been many other feathered dinosaurs found in China, especially at the famous fossil site in Laioning Province which is Early Cretaceous in age.

‘These finds have answered many questions about the evolutionary transition from small meat-eating dinosaurs to birds,’ says Dr Milner.

Dr Milner concludes, ‘Epidexipteryx provides fascinating evidence of evolutionary experiments with feathers that were going on before small dinosaurs finally took to the air and became birds.’

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