W A S H I N G T O N, Dec. 8, 2001 -- One of the earliest birdsever found used its feathers to fly, Chinese scientistsreported Thursday in a paper that other experts said laid torest any ideas that modern birds evolved from dinosaurs.
But scientists will probably continue to ruffle feathersover the origin-of-birds debate, which heats up every fewmonths as reports come out on fossils of what look like birds.
In the latest paper, published in the journal Science,Fucheng Zhang and Zhonghe Zhou of the Chinese Academy ofSciences in Beijing say they found a 120 million-year-old birdthat clearly had feathers and that clearly flew.
Dug up from an ancient lakebed in China’s Hebei Province,the starling-sized bird is called Protopteryx fengningensis.
“The body of Protopteryx was extensively covered byfeathers, which were preserved as carbonized traces orstructured imprints,” Zhang and Zhou wrote in their paper.
“The down feathers almost covered the whole body.”
Pelvis Made for Flying
They said it had several features in common with modernflying birds, such as a procoracoid process, a structure of thepelvis.
“In modern birds, the development of the procoracoid is anindicator of flight ability,” they wrote. “Poor fliers such aspheasants have a reduced procoracoid. True fliers, such asperching birds and hawks, have a well-developed procoracoid.”
The feathers on the creature have many scale-likequalities, which the researchers say show that feathers evolvedfrom scales in distinct stages.
They propose that feathers evolved through four stages, inwhich scales became elongated, developed a central shaft,sprouted strands called barbs one each side, and finallydeveloped a more complex network of smaller strands calledbarbules.
Protopteryx’s feathers look like they come from somewherein the middle of this process.
‘Dino-Fuzz’ Was Not Feathers
Alan Feduccia, a bird expert at the University of NorthCarolina who has led the argument that birds did not descendfrom dinosaurs, calls the paper “extraordinarily important.”
“Here we have what could well be an intermediate stage inthe evolution of feathers and one of most intriguing thingsabout them is they are quite scale-like,” Feduccia said in atelephone interview.
“Beyond question it was a flying bird,” he added. “I thinkit’ll stir the pot a little bit.”
Feduccia said it helps show that feathered dinosaurs,thought by some to have been the ancestors of modern birds,were no such thing.
“In a sense they really tell us that recent discoveries inChina, these dinosaurs with putative feathers, what they calldino-fuzz, really could have nothing to do with the origin offeathers.”
Conclusion Up in the Air
He thinks the structures found on some dinosaur fossils mayrepresent collagen or some other substance, not feathers, assome scientists have proposed.
Feduccia helped write a controversial report this past Juneon a 220-million-year-old animal called Longisquama that he andcolleagues said had feathers. Other scientists have argued withthe conclusion.
Feduccia says Thursday’s paper supports his argument thatbirds descend from an ancestor that pre-dates the dinosaur.
“The true origin of birds is still up in the air,” hesaid.