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 Wednesday, 17 July, 2002, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Dino-birds come to UK
Fuzzy raptor (Copyright John Sibbick)
How the "fuzzy raptor" might have looked
(Picture by John Sibbick)

Remarkable fossil remains of feathered dinosaurs - perhaps the ancestral cousins of modern birds - are being shown in the West for the first time.

Their bodies have been remarkably well-preserved - like the ancient humans in Pompeii

Dr Angela Milner, Natural History Museum
While it has been believed for many years that birds are descended from dinosaurs, proof has been hard to find.

However, astonishing finds at a single site in north-east China have provided the best evidence yet.

Palaeontologists say the creatures unearthed over the past five years - which died between 122 million and 124 million years ago - may not have been able to fly, but they had developed a coat of primitive feathers, probably for insulation.

Some have more developed, bird-like feathers, perhaps to help them mount displays to attract a mate.

Good evidence

Chinese museums have now been persuaded - for the first time - to allow some of their treasures to leave the country.

Launch Graphic Click to launch:
Dino-birds in pictures

The Natural History Museum in London, UK, is mounting an exhibition of several important fossil specimens from Liaonging Province, including the "fuzzy raptor", described as the most convincing evidence yet of the link between birds and dinosaurs.

This dinosaur was found to have a covering of downy feathers, and more sophisticated feathers on its front limbs.

In addition, the fuzzy raptor's (Sinornithosaurus millenii) wrist joints are adapted so that they can perform a twisting down-stroke - just like a modern bird.

Dr Angela Milner, the associate keeper of palaeontology at the Natural History Museum, said: "The fuzzy raptor is the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle - it has primitive feathers and proper feathers.

"It gives us the idea about how flight might have come about - it is the convincing proof that birds are living dinosaurs."

Rare opportunity

Other small, feathered dinosaurs will be on display, including the Sinosauropteryx, a meat-eater with a downy coat, and Changchanornis, a fully feathered dinosaur which may have moved in flocks.

Archaeopteryx fossil, Natural History Museum
Archaeopteryx: Usually kept from public display
The museum is putting one of its own treasures on view, too: a fossil of Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird, which was discovered in a German quarry in 1861.

This is normally kept away from view, such is the demand from researchers to study it.

It dates from 26 million years earlier than the fuzzy raptor. So, despite many similarities between the two, S. millenii cannot be directly descended from Archaeopteryx.

Dr Milner said: "We would need finds 60 million years older than those in China to look for a common ancestor."

Volcanic disaster

The feathered dinosaurs have all been recovered within a small area of Liaonging Province.

It is thought that, approximately 122m years ago, this was a lush area surrounding a lake.

Work, Natural History Museum
The London museum has done preservation work on the specimens
However, all the dinosaurs and mammals in the region are likely to have died suddenly, perhaps as a result of poison gases released during nearby volcanic activity.

Their remains were then covered very quickly by a layer of ash, aiding preservation.

Dr Milner said: "Their bodies have been remarkably well-preserved - like the ancient humans in Pompeii."

The exhibition runs at the Natural History Museum from Thursday 18 July to May 2003.

See also:

26 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
06 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
06 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
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