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Feathers found in amber add to evidence of 'fluffy' dinosaurs

September 16, 2011 |  5:16 pm

Fluffy_dinosaur

Ancient feathers preserved in amber might raise as many questions about dinosaurs and birds as they answer, at least for some people -- and we’re here to get a few of those questions answered.

This week, a new report in the journal Science describes a bonanza of ancient feathers preserved in 70-million-year-old amber, some of which could have belonged to dinosaurs.

Paleontologists are excited about the variety of feathers that were discovered — from the simplest feathers meant for insulation to increasingly complex plume-like structures that might have been used for mating and eventually flight.

Furthermore, the amber also preserved the color of the feathers, adding to the understanding of what some early dinosaurs might have looked like.

It turns out that our deeply ingrained images of dinosaurs as giant green and brown reptiles might not be accurate. Instead of simply using modern-day lizards to help us imagine all of those giants of the past, scientists suggest, we should also look to the bird world.

Mark A. Norell, a dinosaur paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, wrote in a commentary accompanying the report: "Now, instead of scaly animals portrayed as usually drab creatures, we have solid evidence for a fluffy, colored past."

Did he just call dinosaurs "fluffy"?

To find out more about feathered dinosaurs and dinosaurs' connection with modern-day birds, we talked to John Long, vice president of research and collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and author of the book "Feathered Dinosaurs: The Origin of Birds." Here is an edited transcript:

How long have scientists known that some dinosaurs had feathers?

The first feathered dinosaurs were found in China in 1996. Well, technically the scientific articles about the discovery were published in 1996. Since then, at least eight families of dinosaurs have been found with feathers.

Was the scientific community shocked by the feathered dinosaur discovery, or did they see it coming?

Many of the scientists working on the origins of birds predicted that dinosaurs should have feathers because their skeletons were so similar to birds. It had been hypothesized that dinosaurs might have feathers since the 1960s because skeletally the evidence was there. But the discoveries coming out of China have filled in a lot of missing links.

Did all dinosaurs have feathers?

No, not all dinosaurs.  Not the ones with the big long necks, for example. It really only pertains to the theropods, the meat-eating dinosaurs.

So what do dinosaur feathers look like?

There are many different types. Some were like plumes, others were short wispy feathers that covered the body, some were like short-hair feathers that looked like fuzz. We've found at least four different feather structures that evolved in dinosaurs. Initially they may have evolved to help them regulate their body temperature, then to attract a mate. Some show big tufts of feathers on the tail that would have been useful in courtship display.

What is the dinosaurs' relationship to modern-day birds?

Dinosaurs ruled the earth for 160 million years and people think they just went exinct. But in fact, one lineage of them not only survived, they are the most successful vertebrates. There are 10,000 species of birds on the planet. They are still dominating the world today.

The truth is, birds are dinosaurs. They are part of the same lineage.

RELATED:

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--Deborah Netburn

Image: Shown is an artist's rendering of the Guanlong, one of the earliest members of the tyrannosaur family. Fossils of the dinosaur have been found with feathers attached to the tail. Credit: Artist Peter Schouten from “Feathered DInsoaurs: The Origin of Birds.” 

 

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