'Sonora Lizard' could become Arizona's State Dinosaur

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Sonorasaurus is a genus of brachiosaurid dinosaur from around 93 million to 112 million years ago. It was a herbivorous sauropod whose fossils have been found in southern Arizona in the United States. Its name, which means “Sonora lizard,” comes from the Sonoran Desert where its fossils were first found. It is estimated to have been about 49 feet long and 27 feet tall, about one-third of the size of Brachiosaurus.  Wikipedia

A 27-foot-tall dinosaur that lived about 100 million years ago could soon have something in common with the cactus wren, the palo verde and even the Colt single-action revolver: becoming part of “official” Arizona.

Members of the House Government Committee on Thursday gave their unanimous endorsement to the pleas of 11-year-old Jax Weldon to designate the Sonorasaurus as the “official state dinosaur.” That sends SB 1517, which already has been approved by the Senate, to the full House.

Weldon, a self-proclaimed amateur paleontologist, told lawmakers he was inspired after California lawmakers voted last year to select the Augustynolophus as its official state dinosaur. His research, he said, led him to the Sonorasaurus.

The “why” behind that choice is a bit more complex.

There’s the sheer size of the enormous creatures, getting as tall as 27 feet and up to 49 feet long. That size allowed the vegetarian to graze in the treetops that other animals of its time could not reach.

It also lived in what is now Arizona, though at the time the climate and topography were vastly different than they are now.

And then there’s the fact that the huge creature was featured in “Jurassic Park.”

“I would not choose any other dinosaurs because they either are not relevant enough or not very well understood,” Weldon said. And he said he did not want to choose a dinosaur that might already be the official selection of some other state.

Weldon told lawmakers his interest in dinosaurs dates to when he was just 2.

“I think there was this little tiny globe that my parents had bought,” he said. “When you pressed it in a certain area it would say the name of a dinosaur and then it would like roar or something.”

If the bill becomes law, it would add Sonorasaurus to an ever-growing list of official state items.

Some are quite familiar, like the bloom of the giant saguaro as the state flower, the two-tailed swallowtail as the state butterfly or even the bola tie as official state neckwear.

Some of the choices have been more controversial, like the 2011 vote to declare the Colt single-action Army revolver to be the official state firearm.

Albert Hale, then a state representative from Window Rock, objected to providing official state recognition to “an instrument of destruction.” And Hale, a Navajo, said his people were all too often on the wrong end of that weapon.

“Does that mean we honor and celebrate the killing of my relatives?” he asked.

And controversy could be lurking in the wings even on this to designate the Sonorasaurus as the state dinosaur.

Two decades ago John Huppenthal, then a state senator, pushed a proposal by a 9-year-old boy to give that designation to the Dilophosaurus, a 20-foot-long dinosaur whose remains were discovered in 1940 near Tuba City.

That ran into opposition from volunteers from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson who argued that the bones were spirited away by paleontologists from the University of California-Berkeley. But they had their own suggestion, that being the Sonorasaurus whose remains were being excavated at the time by Arizona paleontologists near Sonoita with plans to put them on display at the Tucson museum.

An attempt at compromise to name both ultimately faltered. And, in the end, neither prehistoric creature gained the designation.

And, as it turns out, there could still be other pretenders even today to giving the state’s official blessing to the Sonorasaurus.

The Museum of Northern Arizona has a potential entry, the Therizinosaur, whose bones are on display at that facility. And while it was unearthed in southern Utah, there is a belief it probably roamed farther south across the Colorado Plateau.

Official state emblems:

Colors -- Blue and old gold, with blue the same as U.S. flag

Fossil -- Petrified wood (araucarioxylon arizonicum)

Bird -- Coues' cactus wren (heleodytes brunneicapillus coures)

Flower -- The white waxy flower of the saguaro (cereus giganteus)

Tree -- Palo verde (genera cercidium)

Neckwear -- Bola tie

Gemstone -- Turquoise

Mammal -- Ringtail (bassariscus astutus)

Reptile -- Ridge-nosed rattlesnake (crotalus willardi)

Fish -- Arizona trout (salmo apache)

Amphibian -- Arizona tree frog (hyla eximia)

Butterfly -- Two-tailed swallowtail (papilionidae papilio multicaudata)

Nickname -- The Grand Canyon state

Firearm -- Colt single action Army revolver

Metal -- Copper

State mineral -- Wulfenite

-- Source: Arizona Revised Statutes &

Archaeopteryx Was Active Flyer, Paleontologists Say

Thursday, March 15, 2018

An artist’s impression of what Archaeopteryx lithographica, one of the earliest known birds, would have looked like in flight. Image credit: Carl Buell / Nicholas Longrich.

Archaeopteryx is an iconic fossil species with feathered wings from the Late Jurassic of Germany. The question of whether this dino-bird was an elaborately feathered ground dweller, a glider, or an active flyer has fascinated paleontologists for many years. European Synchrotron Radiation Facility researcher Dennis Voeten and colleagues have now analyzed new data from three Archaeopteryx specimens and found that the wing bones of the ancient creature were shaped for incidental active flight, but not for the advanced style of flying mastered by modern-day birds.

Was Archaeopteryx capable of flying, and if so, how? Although it is common knowledge that modern-day birds descended from extinct dinosaurs, many questions on their early evolution and the development of avian flight remain unanswered.

Traditional research methods have thus far been unable to answer the question whether Archaeopteryx flew or not.

Using synchrotron microtomography to probe inside Archaeopteryx fossils, Dr. Voeten and co-authors shed new light on this earliest of birds.

Reconstructing extinct behavior poses substantial challenges for paleontologists, especially when it comes to enigmatic animals such as Archaeopteryx. This well-preserved fossil species shows a mosaic anatomy that illustrates the close family relations between extinct raptorial dinosaurs and the birds.

Most modern bird skeletons are highly specialized for powered flight, yet many of their characteristic adaptations in particularly the shoulder are absent in Archaeopteryx specimens.

Although its feathered wings resemble those of modern birds flying overhead every day, the primitive shoulder structure is incompatible with the modern avian wing beat cycle.

“The cross-sectional architecture of limb bones is strongly influenced by evolutionary adaptation towards optimal strength at minimal mass, and functional adaptation to the forces experienced during life,” said Professor Jorge Cubo, from the Sorbonne University, France.

“By statistically comparing the bones of living animals that engage in observable habits with those of cryptic fossils, it is possible to bring new information into an old discussion,” added Dr. Sophie Sanchez, from Uppsala University, Sweden.

Archaeopteryx skeletons are preserved in and on limestone slabs that reveal only part of their morphology. Since these fossils are among the most valuable in the world, invasive probing to reveal obscured or internal structures is therefore highly discouraged.

“Fortunately, today it is no longer necessary to damage precious fossils,” said Dr. Paul Tafforeau, of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility.

“The exceptional sensitivity of X-ray imaging techniques for investigating large specimens offers harmless microscopic insight into fossil bones and allows virtual 3D reconstructions of extraordinary quality.”

Scanning data unexpectedly revealed that Archaeopteryx’s wing bones, contrary to its shoulder girdle, shared important adaptations with those of modern flying birds.

“We focused on the middle part of the arm bones because we knew those sections contain clear flight-related signals in birds,” said Dr. Emmanuel de Margerie, from CNRS, France.

“We immediately noticed that the bone walls of Archaeopteryx were much thinner than those of earthbound dinosaurs but looked a lot like conventional bird bones,” Dr. Voeten said.

“Data analysis furthermore demonstrated that the bones of Archaeopteryx plot closest to those of birds like pheasants that occasionally use active flight to cross barriers or dodge predators, but not to those of gliding and soaring forms such as many birds of prey and some seabirds that are optimized for enduring flight.”

“We know that the region around Solnhofen in southeastern Germany was a tropical archipelago, and such an environment appears highly suitable for island hopping or escape flight,” said Dr. Martin Röper, from the Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum and the Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Geologie, Germany.

Archaeopteryx shared the Jurassic skies with primitive pterosaurs that would ultimately evolve into the gigantic pterosaurs of the Cretaceous. We found similar differences in wing bone geometry between primitive and advanced pterosaurs as those between actively flying and soaring birds,” said Dr. Vincent Beyrand, from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.


Dennis F.A.E. Voeten et al. 2018. Wing bone geometry reveals active flight in ArchaeopteryxNature Communications 9, article number: 923; doi: 10.1038/s41467-018-03296-8


Flightless Bird Extinct for More Than 700 Years Can be Brought Back to Life, Say Scientists

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Museum host shows Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong a giant Moa bird during a visit to Te Papa Museum in Wellington. [Representational Image]

The little bush moa inhabited parts of New Zealand and went extinct in the late 13th century as a result of overhunting.

Scientists are a step closer to bringing back a species of flightless bird that has been extinct for almost 700 years. The little bush moa that inhabited parts of New Zealand went abruptly extinct as a result of overhunting in the late 13th century.

A team of researchers from Harvard University has assembled a nearly-complete genome of the extinct moa by extracting ancient DNA from the toe bone of a moa specimen held at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada.

The scientists now believe that they are closer to the goal of "de-extinction" — the vanished species can be brought back to life by slipping the genome into the egg of a living species, Statnews reported.

"High throughput sequencing has revolutionized the field of ancient DNA (aDNA) by facilitating recovery of nuclear DNA for greater inference of evolutionary processes of extinct species than is possible from mitochondrial DNA alone," according to the study.

Credit: J. Erxleben, Transactions of the Zoological Society of London v. 11, Wikimedia

The little bush moa was a part of the palaeognathae clade of birds and birds, and those like the kiwi, ostrich, and emu were considered its cousins. There were nine species of the moa but all of them are extinct now.

They roamed in the forests of the North and South Islands of New Zealand before they became extinct, the NZ Herald said. They were on an average four feet tall and weighed about 66 pounds.

Experts believe that the Harvard researchers' work could make it easier to bring back the long-lost species from extinction.

"The fact that they could get a genome from a little bush moa toe is a big deal since now we might be able to use their data to do other extinct bird species," Ben Novak, lead scientist at non-profit conservation group Revive and Restore, told Statnews.

"De-extinction could be useful for inspiring new science and could be beneficial for conservation if we ensure it doesn't reduce existing conservation resources," University of Queensland scientist Hugh Possingham said in a statement.

"However, in general, it is best if we focus on the many species that need our help now," he added.


Mongolia Struggles to Combat Dinosaur Fossil Smugglers

Monday, February 26, 2018

Visitors to a "ger" (tent) camp walk past large dinosaur sculptures used as a gimmick to promote the camp at the Terelj National Park near Ulan Bator, Mongolia. May 27, 2005. (File Photo /AP Archive)

Mongolia's Gobi desert is the world's biggest fossil reservoir. Many of the bones excavated have been lost to smugglers. The country now is campaigning to return the remains to their rightful home.

Mongolian laws have been strengthened to protect dinosaur fossils from being smuggled after the country lost some of the finest examples.

International co-operation to bring fossils back to Mongolia has been growing and has resulted in 22 returns in 2013 alone.

Now, Scientists Think They Know Why Most Ankylosaurs Were Fossilized Belly Up.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Researchers have worked out why ankylosaur fossils are usually discovered upside-down. DEAN MOUHTAROPOULOS/GETTY IMAGES

Ankylosaurs are odd-looking, even by dinosaur standards: They’re squat and fat, with armored backs and, usually, tail clubs. But for many scientists, there’s another reason these creatures stand out—most are fossilized upside-down. The reason for this strange orientation was a mystery for decades, but thanks to an unusual collaboration between paleontologists and armadillo experts, we may finally have an answer—and it all comes down to bloated, floating dinosaur carcasses.

Since the 1930s, paleontologists have suspected something funny about ankylosaurs’ physiology or behavior led to their belly-up preservation. But although several theories have been put forward, none has been proved. So Jordan Mallon, a dinosaur paleontologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, decided to test each of these theories and try to solve the mystery.

First, Mallon’s team wanted to make sure that the common wisdom on ankylosaur orientation wasn’t just an old wives’ tale. After examining 36 ankylosaurs from the province of Alberta in Canada, along with photos and field notes of the excavations, they found that 26 were discovered upside-down—more than would be expected by chance.
The team then turned its attention to the four theories. One, that ankylosaurs simply fell down hills and ended up on their backs, was easy to discount: “If ankylosaurs were universally clumsy, then you wouldn’t expect them to stick around for 100 million years,” Mallon says. Likewise, the researchers found no support for the theory that predators flipped ankylosaurs over to access their delicious underbellies. Teeth marks were only present on one of the specimens they examined.

The “armadillo roadkill model” proved trickier. Because armadillos found on the side of the road supposedly swell up with gases as they decompose, tipping them onto their backs, the same could be true of ankylosaurs. Mallon enlisted the help of armadillo experts Colleen McDonough and Jim Loughry at Valdosta State University in Georgia who spent 3 months surveying armadillo carcasses by the side of the road. The husband-and-wife team would set off at sunrise, McDonough says, before roadkill had become “pancaked” or had been pecked to pieces by vultures. With help from family and friends who sent tip-offs about the location of fresh carcasses (“we call them our network,” McDonough says), the duo recorded the orientation of 174 armadillos—and found no indication that they regularly ended up on their backs.

On the roads, dead armadillos could be moved into their final resting places by scavengers or vehicles, so the scientists also decided to bring some fresh carcasses home, leaving them in their garden to see what would happen as they decomposed. In the paper, the pair thanks their understanding neighbors. “There was a prevalent stench coming from the corner of our yard where we meet three other yards—and no one said a word,” McDonough says. But none of the armadillos placed on their stomachs rolled over, again suggesting that this model didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Finally, the researchers examined the “bloat-and-float” model, which proposes that the bodies of ankylosaurs got washed into rivers or the sea, where they bloated and became unstable, flipping upside-down and eventually sinking or being deposited in the river bank. Mallon’s co-author Donald Henderson at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Canada, created 3D digital models representing the two families of ankylosaur, the ankylosaurids and the nodosaurids. The team fleshed these out with estimations of the dinosaurs’ physical characteristics like lung capacity and bone density. They also created bloated versions of the same dinosaurs, inflating the animals’ stomachs like balloons. They then placed the models in virtual water, and looked at how easily they tipped over.

The nodosaurid model was very unstable: Tipping it merely 1° caused it to turn upside-down, whether it was bloated or not. The ankylosaurid was more resistant, requiring a much larger tilt before it would flip over. Still, says Mallon, a big wave or a predator could easily be enough to force the dinosaur onto its back, especially after bloating. That meant the bloat-and-float model was the only theory that held any water, the team reports this month in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

Victoria Arbour, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto in Canada who was not involved in the research, says that the study “reasonably seals the deal” on the long-standing mystery. She adds that she admires the scientists’ approach to the research. “I always really like it in paleontology when we can use totally independent lines of evidence like that to tell a bigger story,” she says. Mallon agrees: “It’s pretty rare that the scientific method plays out so cleanly in practice, but I think this is a nice case where it does.”


Animatronic Dinosaurs Come to Life at Naples Botanical Garden

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Animatronic dinosaurs come to life at Naples Botanical Garden

Lurking in the ancient tropical ferns and shrubs of the Naples Botanical Garden, a nearly 8-foot-tall Utahraptor growled and hissed, with its menacing, curved talons and a coat of feathers made of synthetic hair.

It was the alpha predator approximately 124 million years ago, and now a life-size, animatronic version of the Utahraptor and nine other dinosaurs will be on display at the the Naples Botanical Garden starting Saturday.

The exhibit, "Dinosaurs: Back with a Roar!", will run until June 3, and is included in regular garden admission.

There's a 15-foot-tall, winged Quetzalcoatlus and her nest at the front of the Kapnick Brazilian Garden, and in the Scott Florida Garden, a 6-foot-tall Citipati that has a blue-colored, spiky tongue and looks sort of like funky emu.

The dinosaurs are part of a traveling exhibit by Texas-based The Dinosaur Co., which brings its menagerie of prehistoric creatures to zoos, museums and gardens across the country.

Each dino is fitted with an electronic brain to activate sounds and realistic-looking movements in the eyes, mouth, neck and limbs. The Tyrannosaurus Rex, for example, stands on its hind legs to reach 40 feet, and the Dilophosaurus squirts water out of its mouth.

The animatronic dinosaurs follow key details from paleontological findings and research from around the world. The colors and patterns, meanwhile, are left to the imagination.

Still, the team from The Dinosaur Co. has modeled the dinos after modern-day birds and reptiles, the closest living relatives.

"Those colorations and those patterns are based off of native animals, so they can tell a story," said Robby Gilbert, the company's director of exhibits.

The Amargasaurus and her baby have the same green skin and yellow spots as the Cuban knight anole, an invasive lizard species in South Florida, and the Florida snail kite, an endangered bird of prey, inspired the grayish colors of the T-Rex.

The Dilophosaurus, though, is painted red, orange and purple with bright yellow teeth — the winning entry in a children's coloring contest.

Garden staff and volunteers spent the days leading up to the opening planting ancient shrubs and ferns around the dinosaurs, including cyads, podocarpus and a Norfolk Island Pine lookalike.

"You’ll see all these cyads and these ferns, very primitive, very early plants that would have been around as long as dinosaurs or longer," Gilbert said. "Here, the dinosaurs are almost secondary to the plants. Kids are here to see the dinosaurs, but garden members are here to learn about the plants."

The garden's youngest visitors can climb atop the lounging Pachyrhinosaurus for a photo, or dig in a sand pit for fossils of a Hadrosaurid.

But the garden-lover will be able to explore the relationship between the ancient creatures and the ancient plants that cohabited all those years ago.

"In Florida you’ve got the palms, everything’s very tropical," Gilbert said. "It looks very similar to what would have been alive during the dinosaurs, just smaller."

Dinosaurs: Back with Roar!
at Naples Botanical Garden

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; early admission at 8 a.m. Tuesdays

Where: Naples Botanical Garden, 4820 Bayshore Drive, East Naples

Cost: Included in regular garden admission; $14.95 for adults; $9.95 for children ages 4 to 14; free for children younger than 3


Fossil Footprints May Put Lizards on Two Feet 110 Million Years Ago

Saturday, February 17, 2018

CHASE SCENE Lizards may have run from the jaws of predatory pterosaurs in the swamp and lake environment where Sauripes hadongensis tracks were found, as in this illustration.

But the prints aren’t clear-cut, others say.

Fossilized footprints from an iguana-like reptile provide what could be the earliest evidence of a lizard running on two legs.

The 29 exceptionally well-preserved lizard tracks, found in a slab of rock from an abandoned quarry in Hadong County, South Korea, include back feet with curved digits and front feet with a slightly longer third digit. The back footprints outnumber the front ones, and digit impressions are more pronounced than those of the balls of the feet. The lizard’s stride length also increases across the slab.

That’s what you’d expect to see in a transition from moseying along on four legs to scampering on two, says Yuong-Nam Lee, a paleontologist at Seoul National University who first came across the slab back in 2004. A closer examination two years ago revealed the telltale tracks.

IMPRINTS  Scientists think that these fossilized footprints may represent the earliest evidence of a lizard running on two legs. Here, a front print (left) and a back print (right) are shown.

Lee and his colleagues attribute the tracks to a previously unknown lizard ichnospecies, that is a species defined solely by trace evidence of its existence, rather than bones or tissue. Lee and his colleagues have dubbed the possible perpetrator Sauripes hadongensis and linked it to an order that includes today’s iguanas and chameleons in the Feb. 15 Scientific Reports.

Bipedal running certainly would have come in handy when escaping predatory pterosaurs some 110 million to 128 million years ago, the age of the rock slab. Lizard tracks are pretty rare in the fossil record, due to the reptiles’ lightweight bodies and penchant for habitats that don’t make great fossils. Though tracks appear in older fossils from the Triassic Epoch, 200 million to 250 million years ago, those prints belong to more primitive lizardlike reptiles. The new find edges out another set from the same region as the oldest true lizard tracks in the world by a few million years, the researchers say.

Plenty of modern lizards use two legs to scurry around. Some studies have linked similarities in ancient lizard bone structure to bipedal locomotion, but it is unclear exactly when lizards developed bipedalism. Lee’s team argues that these tracks represent the earliest and only direct evidence of bipedal running in an ancient lizard.

Martin Lockley, a paleontologist at the University of Colorado Denver who studies ancient animal tracks, points to alternative explanations. S. hadongensis might have trampled over front prints with its back feet, obscuring them and giving the appearance of two-legged running. Preservation can vary between back and front footprints. And the stride lengths aren’t quite as long as what Lockley says he’d expect to see in running. “Running or ‘leaping’ lizards make for a good story, but I am skeptical based on the evidence,” he adds.

So it may take the discovery of more fossilized lizard prints to determine whether S. hadongensis’ tracks truly represent running on two legs rather than simply scurrying on four.


H. Lee et alLizards ran bipedally 110 million years agoScientific Reports. Published online February 15, 2018. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-20809-z.

Further Reading

S. Milius. Built for speedScience News. Vol. 174, August 16, 2008.

S. Perkins. Early biped fossil pops up in EuropeScience News. Vol. 158, November 4, 2000, p. 292.


Permian Reptiles Could Detach Their Tails to Escape from Predators

Friday, March 9, 2018

This is an illustration of Captorhinus, a captorhinid reptile that lived during the Permian period, showing breakable tail vertebrae. Image credit: Robert Reisz.

A new study shows how a group of ancient reptiles called captorhinids could detach their tails to avoid predation.

Captorhinids, also known as cotylosaurs, are a group of small to very large lizard-like reptiles.

They first occured in the Late Carboniferous of North America. In Late Permian times they gained a near global distribution but dissapeared from the North American fossil record, and finally they became extinct by the end of the Permian.

As small omnivores and herbivores, captorhinids had to scrounge for food while avoiding being preyed upon by large carnivorous amphibians and early mammals.

“One of the ways captorhinids could do this was by having breakable tail vertebrae,” said study first author Aaron LeBlanc, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

Like many present-day lizard species, such as skinks, that can detach their tails to escape or distract a predator, the middle of many tail vertebrae had cracks in them.

It is likely that these cracks acted like the perforated lines between two paper towel sheets, allowing vertebrae to break in half along planes of weakness.

“If a predator grabbed hold of one of these reptiles, the vertebra would break at the crack and the tail would drop off, allowing the captorhinid to escape relatively unharmed,” said University of Toronto Mississauga’s Professor Robert Reisz, senior author on the study.

“Being the only reptiles with such an escape strategy may have been a key to their success, because they were the most common reptiles of their time, and by the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago, captorhinids had dispersed across the supercontinent Pangea,” the paleontologists said.

“This trait disappeared from the fossil record when these reptiles died out; it re-evolved in lizards only 70 million years ago.”

The researchers were able to examine more than 70 tail vertebrae (both juveniles and adults) and partial tail skeletons with splits that ran through their vertebrae.

They compared these skeletons to those of other reptilian relatives of captorhinids, but it appears that this ability is restricted to this family of reptiles in the Permian period.

Using various paleontological and histological techniques, the team discovered that the cracks were features that formed naturally as the vertebrae were developing.

Interestingly, the scientists found that young captorhinids had well-formed cracks, while those in some adults tended to fuse up.

This makes sense, since predation is much greater on young individuals and they need this ability to defend themselves.

The study was published online this week in the journal Scientific Reports.


A.R.H. LeBlanc et al. 2018. Caudal autotomy as anti-predatory behaviour in Palaeozoic reptiles. Scientific Reports 8, article number: 3328; doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-21526-3


How Colourful and Feathery Were the Dinosaurs?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Kulindadromeus: An example of a plant-eating dinosaur with feathers and scales

Dinosaurs are depicted as naked, scaly reptiles, but evidence shows they were much more bird-like

Jurassic Park (1993) featured Velociraptors hunting park visitors, depicting them as wily lizard-like predators. Time and science, however, have been unkind to the filmmakers. Velociraptors and most other dinosaurs were bird-like creatures. Even Tyrannosaurs rex is believed to have sported a plume (more “terrible emu” than “terrible lizard”).

“Over the past 10 to 15 years we have come to realise that dinosaurs possessed feathers. Not just some, but lots of them,” says Dr Maria McNamara at University College Cork. All sorts of feathered dinosaurs lived during the Jurassic – 201 to 145 million years ago (mya) – with feathers evolving first for insulation and display, not flight.

“Dinosaurs were depicted as these naked, scaly reptiles. Jurassic Park did that. But discoveries in China changed our perception. They were much more bird-like,” says palaeontologist Dr Jakob Vinther at the University of Bristol. Though there are no fossils of Velociraptors with feathers, Chinese fossils prove their relatives were covered in them.

Dinosaurs experimented with feather designs and shapes. Vinther recently re-examined fossils of a dinosaur called Anchiornis, from the Jurassic. Whereas modern birds have a long central shaft, barbs and then filaments that seal feathers together, Anchiornis was different: “[It] had a short shaft, but then long barbs coming off and bundles of filaments. It would have given the dinosaur a much fluffier appearance; more like a shaggy mammal than a bird,” Vinther says.

In 2017, lasers were used to study traces of soft tissue from Anchiornis and revealed a four-winged dinosaur with drumstick shaped legs, padded feet, a slender tail and an arm similar to a modern bird’s wing. The crow-sized dinosaur may have glided through its woodland home.


Upending science

The first bird is still seen by many as Archaeopteryx (150 mya), a famous fossil discovered in the 19th century in a limestone quarry in Germany. Dublin Zoo put a cast of an Archaeopteryx fossil in its Zoorassic World gallery where visitors can see feather impressions, teeth and a long bony tail, a hodgepodge of dinosaur and bird.

But it was discoveries in China that upended dinosaur science. “We went from a dozen specimens of Archaeopteryx to tens of thousands of feathered specimens, each of which was as amazing,” says Prof Mike Benton, senior dinosaur expert at the University of Bristol. “The level of detail just blew away the field because of the richness of data.”

At the start of his career in the 1980s, Benton was taught Archaeopteryx had about 30 features that set them apart from dinosaurs, including feathers, hallowed bones, reduction of teeth and a wish bone. “All these have been now found in dinosaurs, except one: Powered flight,” says Benton. All parts of the dinosaur family tree had feathers. At a minimum, feathers evolved with early theropod dinosaurs about 200-250 mya, two-legged flesh-eating dinosaurs that gave rise to T. rex.


Feather colour

By examining the shape of granules holding the pigment melanin, scientists such as McNamara have helped decipher the colour of feathers. The first reconstruction of colour was carried out by scientists at the University of Bristol and palaeontologist Dr Patrick Orr at University College Dublin in 2010, reported in the journal Nature. It revealed Sinosauropteryx had a feather-like covering of orange and brown and a striped white and orange tail, probably for display purposes.

In 2014, McNamara co-authored a paper in the journal Science describing a Jurassic dinosaur from Siberia that resembled a flightless bird such as an emu or ostrich (except it had a long tail). This was the first ever example of a plant-eating dinosaur with feathers and scales. Before that, it was only the flesh-eating theropods that were found with feathers. Today, palaeontologists suspect large dinosaurs lacking feathers lost them during evolution, similar to how large mammals such as elephants lost fur.

“If we didn’t have all these fossils from China, our understanding of dinosaurs would be very different today,” says Vinther. “Birds are dinosaurs.”


A land of feathered dragons

Northeast China is ground zero for a revolution in how we see dinosaurs. A huge area in Liaoning province has well-preserved fossils of feathered dinosaurs and early birds, which are remarkably widespread. “The area is huge, probably about 1,000 square kilometres,” says Benton. “It is a little unclear why the fossils are so exceptionally preserved, but lots of the sediment has volcanic ash. For some locations, it seems fossils were captured in ash, a little like Pompeii.”

Most seem to be buried in lake beds or marshes, and many people dig them out to sell to museums and collectors.

The fossils have shifted scientists’ views on how dinosaurs looked and behaved. Many apparently had bright feathers, like birds today, which could have driven sexual selection. Benton says: “There are so many species of these small theropod dinosaurs. It may be that sexual selection was spinning up the number of species.”


What we Know About Dinosaurs will Probably Change

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Everything we know about dinosaurs is connected to fossil records and, if the last decade is anything to go by, all of that could change dramatically over the next 20 years.

Much of what we know about dinosaurs is nascent by nature. It's difficult to study something that's been buried in the ground for 65 million years, right?

But a recent study from scientists at the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London has put some numbers behind our collective acquired knowledge of dinosaurs. It appears that much of what we know about dinosaurs could potentially change over the next 20 years.

The science is simple. Everything we know about dinosaurs is essentially derived from the fossil record. And over the last ten years there has been a dramatic increase in additions to that fossil record. In layman's terms: we're discovering more dinosaurs at rapid rate, which means we're constantly acquiring new, concrete examples of how dinosaurs actually lived.

Just take a look at this handy graph.


More dinosaur findings equals more knowledge, equals a better, broader understanding of how the scientific community understands dinosaurs as a whole.

In a blog post Jonathan P. Tennant tried to explain his findings.

"This has profound impacts on our understanding of dinosaur diversity, especially as these discoveries are unevenly spread over time and space," he wrote. "There are still huge gaps in our knowledge of the fossil record, and areas in space and geological time where the rapid pace of discovery is changing much of what we thought we knew about dinosaurs."