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Wednesday, 6 March, 2002, 21:52 GMT
'Modern' feathers found on Chinese dino
Fossil, AMNH
This fossil of the dromesaur is just under a metre long
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By BBC News Online's Ania Lichtarowicz
A new dinosaur fossil, found in north-eastern China, could change the way we think of dinosaurs forever.

Writing in the journal Nature, palaeontologists from China and the United States suggest dinosaurs may have looked more like odd-shaped, large birds than huge, scaly lizards.

Previous fossil finds have indicated that some dinosaurs were covered with a feather-like fluff known as proto feathers.

Feathers, AMNH
The shaft and barbs of the feather are clearly visible
But this new fossil, of a carnivorous dinosaur called a dromesaur, shows the first evidence that dinosaurs may at some point in their lives have been covered with true feathers, like those we see on modern birds.

Feathers and flight

A true feather is a complex structure. It has a central shaft (or rachis) with vanes, or barbs, attached to it.

The fossil of a dromesaur, which is just under a metre long, is the first non-flying dinosaur to be found with such modern-looking feathers.

Previously, only fossils of flightless proto-birds like Caudipteryx and Protarchaeopteryx had telltale signs of having had what we might call real feathers.

This latest fossil find suggests that modern feathers evolved before the emergence of birds and flight.

It also suggests that other animals not capable of flight were at some stage in their lives covered in modern-type feathers.

'Silly birds'

Dr Mark Norrell, from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is one of the authors of the Nature research. He told BBC News Online that the dromesaur discovery had major implications for our understanding of dinosaurs.

"This find changes our perspective on what dinosaurs were," he said. "Instead of having scaly skin and looking like giant lizards, we now know they had feathers and may have looked like rather silly-looking, large birds."

He said it was unlikely that dinosaurs were covered in feathers all their lives. It was much more likely, he claimed, that feathers were present during a certain part of their lifecycle - for example, young chicks might have needed feathers for insulation.

The US and Chinese scientists suggest that once dinosaurs shed their feathers, a soft scaly skin was left behind. This would not have been like lizard or snake skin but more like the skin modern birds have on their feet.

See also:

26 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
The feathered dinosaurs of Liaoning
29 Mar 01 | Sci/Tech
'Piltdown' bird fake explained
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