If you’ve visited a dinosaur exhibit in the last five years you know that at least some of the scaly, reptilian-looking creatures most of us imagined were in fact plumed. That is, in addition to scales, they had feathers too.
But the recent discovery of a small downy dinosaur in Siberia suggests that feather-like structures on dinosaurs may have been even more widespread throughout the dinosaur world than was previously thought.
The best evidence for feathered dinosaurs comes from a series of discoveries in northeastern China, beginning in the 1980s. Hundreds of millions of years ago this area was covered in forest, filled with animals and dotted with lakes. Those lakes are key, because their sediments preserved not just the bones of the dead animals that fell to their bottoms, but also some of their soft tissue — skin, and feathers as well.
From these discoveries, scientists were able to conclude that at least the theropod group of dinosaurs was sporting bird-like feathers about 200 million years ago — 50 million years before the first bird-like animal, the Archeopteryx, came into existence.
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But the evidence is mounting that other dinosaurs had feathers, or at least proto-feathers.
In a new study published in the journal Science, a team of researchers from Europe describes a small ornithopod dinosaur discovered in southeastern Siberia. The dinosaur, dubbed Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, was about 5 feet in length, walked on its two back legs and was probably a plant eater. It also appears to have had three different types of feather-like structures covering large portions of its body.
The research team, lead by Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, stops short of calling these structures feathers, but it does say some of them are similar to the down on certain modern chicken breeds, while others are more complex.
Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who was not involved with the study, said the fossils described did not appear to be as pristinely preserved as some of the fossils that have been uncovered in China. But he still finds the paper intriguing.
“For a long time we really only knew dinosaurs from their bones, and we just assumed they were scaly creatures like lizards or crocodiles,” he said. “This paper contributes to a larger body of evidence that tells me we have grossly underestimated the ability of these dinosaurs to generate all sorts of skin appendages, whether they are hairs or feathers or something else.”
The next step, he said, is to learn more about the structure of these appendages and to figure out what they were used for.
“I think in the coming years we are going to get a tremendous amount of information about dinosaurs, and the origin of some of these structures that are still lingering in their descendants today,” he said.