An Early Cretaceous heterodontosaurid dinosaur with filamentous integumentary structures


Ornithischia is one of the two major groups of dinosaurs, with heterodontosauridae as one of its major clades. Heterodontosauridae is characterized by small, gracile bodies and a problematic phylogenetic position1,2. Recent phylogenetic work indicates that it represents the most basal group of all well-known ornithischians3. Previous heterodontosaurid records are mainly from the Early Jurassic period (205–190 million years ago) of Africa1,3. Here we report a new heterodontosaurid, Tianyulong confuciusi gen. et sp. nov., from the Early Cretaceous period (144–99 million years ago) of western Liaoning Province, China. Tianyulong extends the geographical distribution of heterodontosaurids to Asia and confirms the clade’s previously questionable temporal range extension into the Early Cretaceous period. More surprisingly, Tianyulong bears long, singular and unbranched filamentous integumentary (outer skin) structures. This represents the first confirmed report, to our knowledge, of filamentous integumentary structures in an ornithischian dinosaur.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: New heterodontosaurid ornithischian dinosaur T. confuciusi.
Figure 2: Integumentary structures of T. confuciusi holotype (STMN 26-3) and others for comparison.
Figure 3: Phylogenetic relationships of T. confuciusi and Heterodontosauridae.


  1. 1

    Norman, D. B., Sues, H.-D., Witmer, L. M. & Coria, R. A. in The Dinosauria 2nd edn (eds Weishampel, D. B., Dodson, P. and Osmólska, H.) 393–412 (Univ. California Press, 2004)

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Xu, X., Forster, C. A., Clark, J. M. & Mo, J. A basal ceratopsian with transitional features from the Late Jurassic of northwestern China. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 273, 2135–2140 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Butler, R. J., Upchurch, P. & Norman, D. B. The phylogeny of the ornithischian dinosaurs. J. Syst. Palaeontol. 6, 1–40 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Zhou, Z., Barrett, P. M. & Hilton, J. An exceptionally preserved Lower Cretaceous ecosystem. Nature 421, 807–814 (2003)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Ji, Q. et al. Mesozoic Jehol Biota of Western Liaoning, China (Geological Publishing House, 2004)

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Weishampel, D. B. & Witmer, L. M. in The Dinosauria 1st edn (eds Weishampel, D. B., Dodson, P. & Osmólska, H.) 486–497 (Univ. California Press, 1990)

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Lingham-Soliar, T., Feduccia, A. & Wang, X. A new Chinese specimen indicates that ‘protofeathers’ in the Early Cretaceous theropod dinosaur Sinosauropteryx are degraded collagen fibres. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 274, 1823–1829 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Feduccia, A., Lingham-Soliar, T. & Hinchliffe, J. R. Do feathered dinosaurs exist? Testing the hypothesis on neontological and paleontological evidence. J. Morphol. 266, 125–166 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Mayr, G., Peters, D. S., Plodowski, G. & Vogel, O. Bristle-like integumentary structures at the tail of the horned dinosaur Psittacosaurus. Naturwissenschaften 89, 361–365 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Zhang, F., Zhou, Z. & Dyke, G. J. Feathers and ‘feather-like’ integumentary structures in Liaoning birds and dinosaurs. Geol. J. 41, 395–404 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Xu, X. Feathered dinosaurs from China and the evolution of major avian characters. Integ. Zool. 1, 4–11 (2006)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Zhang, F. et al. A bizarre Jurassic maniraptoran from China with elongate ribbon-like feathers. Nature 455, 1105–1108 (2008)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Zhang, F., Zhou, Z. & Benton, M. J. A primitive confuciusornithid bird from China and its implications for early avian flight. Sci. China Ser. D 51, 625–639 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Zhang, F. & Zhou, Z. A primitive enantiornithine bird and the origin of feathers. Science 290, 1955–1960 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Zheng, X., Zhang, Z. & Hou, L. A new enantiornitine bird with four long rectrices from the Early Cretaceous of northern Hebei, China. Acta Geol. Sin.-Engl. 81, 703–708 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Currie, P. J. & Chen, P. J. Anatomy of Sinosauropteryx prima from Liaoning, northeastern China. Can. J. Earth Sci. 38, 1705–1727 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Xu, X., Zhou, Z.-H. & Prum, R. O. Branched integumental structures in Sinornithosaurus and the origin of feathers. Nature 410, 200–204 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Butler, R. J., Porro, L. B. & Norman, D. B. A juvenile skull of the primitive ornithischian dinosaur Heterodontosaurus tucki from the ‘Stormberg’ of southern Africa. J. Vertebr. Paleontol. 28, 702–711 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. Dinosaurs of Great Britain and the role of the Geological Society of London in their discovery: Ornithischia. J. Geol. Soc. Lond. 165, 613–623 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Sánchez-Hernández, B., Benton, M. J. & Naish, D. Dinosaurs and other fossil vertebrates from the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous of the Galve area, NE Spain. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclimatol. Palaeoecol. 249, 180–215 (2007)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Norman, D. B. & Barrett, P. M. Ornithischian dinosaurs from the Lower Cretaceous (Berriasian) of England. Spec. Pap. Palaeontol. 68, 161–189 (2002)

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Sharov, A. G. An unusual reptile from the Lower Triassic of Fergana. Paleontol. J. 1970, 112–116 (1970)

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Voigt, S. et al. Feather-like development of Triassic diapsid skin appendages. Naturwissenschaften 96, 81–86 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Wang, X., Zhou, Z., Zhang, F. & Xu, X. A nearly completely articulated rhamphorhynchoid pterosaur with exceptionally well-preserved wing membranes and ‘hairs’ from Inner Mongolia, northeast China. Chin. Sci. Bull. 47, 226–230 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Ji, Q. & Yuan, C.-X. Discovery of two kinds of protofeathered pterosaurs in the Mesozoic Daohugou Biota in the Ningcheng region and its stratigraphic and biologic significances. Geol. Rev. 48, 221–224 (2002)

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Reisz, R. R. & Sues, H. D. The ‘feathers’ of Longisquama. Nature 408, 428 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Jones, T. D. et al. Nonavian feathers in a late Triassic archosaur. Science 288, 2202–2205 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Prum, R. O. & Brush, A. H. The evolutionary origin and diversification of feathers. Q. Rev. Biol. 77, 261–295 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Yu, M., Wu, P., Widelitz, R. B. & Chuong, C.-M. The morphogenesis of feathers. Nature 420, 308–312 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Goloboff, P. A., Farris, J. S. & Nixon, K. C. TNT, a free program for phylogenetic analysis. Cladistics 24, 774–786 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank P.-J. Chen for arranging the study, Y.-Q. Zhang for preparing the specimen, J. D. Harris for improving the manuscript, and L.-D. Xing for drawing Fig. 1d. H.-L.Y. was supported by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (40672007), the 973 Project and the Basic Outlay of Scientific Research Work from the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Hundred Talents Project of the Ministry of Land and Resources of China.

Author Contributions X.-T.Z. designed the project. H.-L.Y., X.X. and Z.-M.D. performed the research. H.-L.Y. wrote the manuscript.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Hai-Lu You.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Data, 8 Supplementary Photographs, Supplementary Notes and Supplementary References (PDF 614 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Zheng, X., You, H., Xu, X. et al. An Early Cretaceous heterodontosaurid dinosaur with filamentous integumentary structures. Nature 458, 333–336 (2009).

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing