Published online 25 September 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.949

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Oldest feathered dinosaur found

Chinese fossil find sheds light on evolution of birds.

Anchiornis huxleyi - a feathered dinosaruAnchiornis huxleyi is the oldest feathered dinosaur found to date.Zhao Chuang and Xing Lida

Chinese scientists have discovered a near-complete fossil of the oldest bird-like dinosaur, and their find suggests such feathered animals were present on Earth more than 150 million years ago.

The fossil of the four-winged species, Anchiornis huxleyi is dated to the Late Jurassic period, 151-161 million years ago. This eclipses the previous oldest such species, the 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx lithographica, found more than a century ago in Germany. The report is seen as wiping out the last vestige of an argument by a handful of scientists that birds couldn't have evolved from such two-legged dinosaurs.

The four-winged dinosaurs also had feathers on their feet and wing-like attachments on the arms and legs. But they could probably only glide, as their plumage was insufficient for powered flight.

"This fossil shows how widespread feathers were among such species," says Mark Norell, curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The discovery is to be published in Nature next week1, but the team presented the find and several similar species at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology this week in Bristol, UK.

Fossil gold mine

The Chinese team say that the quarry in the northeastern province of Liaoning where the A. huxleyi fossil was found contained several other species of theropod dinosaur, which share some links with modern-day birds. "This quarry may be the most important geological formation for understanding this critical evolutionary period for the diversity of theropod dinosaurs," says Xu Xing, a palaeontologist from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing and an author of the Nature article.

As is often the case in China, where many feathered dinosaur specimens have been discovered, linking the A. huxleyi specimen to its sediments of origin required scientific detective work.

Earlier this year, the group reported the type specimen of A. huxleyi, which was based on a partial fossil that a farmer had found sandwiched between sediment layers2.

But the actual location that produced that specimen was unknown when the first report was prepared, Xu said. Then the group received the new near-complete fossil that is the basis for the Nature article from another farmer, who led the team to the important quarry.

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Fossils that had previously been found in this quarry, in the locality of Daxishan in Jianchang County, Liaoning, had been dated to the Late Jurassic period, so the team knew they were onto something big.

Since then, Xu said the group has scoured Chinese museums for specimens from this geological formation and have found more than 200. The team also is scrutinizing specimens from another quarry that is dated to 158-164 million years ago.

With this wealth of fossils for analysis, a fuller picture of the meat-eating feathered creatures from the Late Jurassic seems to be on the horizon. 

  • References

    1. Hu, D., Hou, L., Zhang, L. & Xu, X. Nature 461, 640-643 (2009). | Article | ChemPort |
    2. Xu, X. et al. Chin. Sci. Bull. 54, 430-435 (2009). | Article
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