Putting the feather in the fossil

By: Laurentian University students

 | Mar 06, 2013 - 11:36 AM |

By Grace Hunter 


Picture an animal about the size of a crow, that walks on two legs, and is covered in black, shiny plumage.

Long, aerodynamic plumes cover the animal's arms and legs, giving it two sets of wings.

If you think the creature described is an unusual species of bird, think again. This is Microraptor, a dinosaur that roamed prehistoric China, and it was one of many dinosaurs covered in feathers.

Palaeontologists unearthed the first feathered dinosaur in China in 1996. Since then China has gone on to become one of the world's renowned palaeontology hotspots.

Its numerous feathered dinosaur fossils have revolutionized our view of dinosaur biology and behaviour. No longer can we think of dinosaurs as the scaly beasts of our childhood story books and Jurassic Park.

Instead, the modern image of dinosaurs includes species covered in colourful plumage.

Many of China's feathered dinosaur fossils come from 150- to 120-million-year-old rocks north east of Beijing, in Liaoning Province. The beautiful and detailed preservation of the skeletons with their feathers may have resulted from the dinosaurs being quickly killed and buried by mudslides and fine ash from volcanic eruptions.

Burial in fine sediments, possibly poor in bacteria, appears to have allowed dinosaur feathers to be fossilized in great detail.

While most feathered species found so far have been small like Microraptor, scientists recently described simple feathers on an early relative of Tyrannosaurus rex that might have tipped the scales at 1,400 kilograms.

Too big to fly, this fuzzy dinosaur may have used its feathers to keep warm, similar to the birds that frequent our bird feeders during the Sudbury winter.

Or the plumage may have served a flashier purpose, as birds today like peacocks use brightly coloured, extravagant feathers to communicate and get a date.

The discovery of fossil feathers has also opens up a previously unknown area of dinosaur biology: their colours. Prior to these finds, scientists could only guess as to the original colour of dinosaurs.

The green and brown Velociraptors and Dilophosaurs running around in Jurassic Park are artistic imaginings, based on the colouring of today's reptiles. Now, however, scientists can look at tiny pigment-bearing structures in fossilized feathers called melanosomes to discover their original colour.

Already an enormous diversity in dinosaur feather colouring has been revealed, from shiny black to ones with reddish brown stripes.

So with all these feathered dinosaurs being discovered, could we one day find a feathered Tyrannosaurus rex? Some scientists think it's possible, but we can't know for sure until a palaeontologist uncovers direct fossil evidence of a T. rex with feathers.

Still China's palaeontologists will keep digging, uncovering new fossil finds and challenging both our and Hollywood's ideas of what dinosaurs really looked like.

Grace Hunter is a student in the Laurentian University / Science North graduate program in Science Communication. Have a burning science question that can be answered in Northern Life's new science column, Talking Science? Send your question to editor@northernlife.ca.

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