Scientists Say Birds Predated Dinosaurs

W A S H I N G T O N, Dec. 8, 2001 -- One of the earliest birds ever found used its feathers to fly, Chinese scientists reported Thursday in a paper that other experts said laid to rest any ideas that modern birds evolved from dinosaurs.

But scientists will probably continue to ruffle feathers over the origin-of-birds debate, which heats up every few months 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 of Sciences in Beijing say they found a 120 million-year-old bird that 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 by feathers, which were preserved as carbonized traces or structured 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 modern flying birds, such as a procoracoid process, a structure of the pelvis.

“In modern birds, the development of the procoracoid is an indicator of flight ability,” they wrote. “Poor fliers such as pheasants have a reduced procoracoid. True fliers, such as perching birds and hawks, have a well-developed procoracoid.”

The feathers on the creature have many scale-like qualities, which the researchers say show that feathers evolved from scales in distinct stages.

They propose that feathers evolved through four stages, in which scales became elongated, developed a central shaft, sprouted strands called barbs one each side, and finally developed a more complex network of smaller strands called barbules.

Protopteryx’s feathers look like they come from somewhere in the middle of this process.

‘Dino-Fuzz’ Was Not Feathers

Alan Feduccia, a bird expert at the University of North Carolina who has led the argument that birds did not descend from dinosaurs, calls the paper “extraordinarily important.”

“Here we have what could well be an intermediate stage in the evolution of feathers and one of most intriguing things about them is they are quite scale-like,” Feduccia said in a telephone interview.

“Beyond question it was a flying bird,” he added. “I think it’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 in China, these dinosaurs with putative feathers, what they call dino-fuzz, really could have nothing to do with the origin of feathers.”

Conclusion Up in the Air

He thinks the structures found on some dinosaur fossils may represent collagen or some other substance, not feathers, as some scientists have proposed.

Feduccia helped write a controversial report this past June on a 220-million-year-old animal called Longisquama that he and colleagues said had feathers. Other scientists have argued with the conclusion.

Feduccia says Thursday’s paper supports his argument that birds descend from an ancestor that pre-dates the dinosaur.

“The true origin of birds is still up in the air,” he said.