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Fuzzy dinosaur find suggests feathers evolved early on

Remains found in China are only distantly related to other dinosaurs with signs of feathers. Some scientists say this may indicate both branches inherited primitive feathers from common ancestors.

March 21, 2009|Associated Press

A small dinosaur that once roamed northeastern China was covered with a stiff, hair-like fuzz, a discovery that suggests feathers began to evolve much earlier than many researchers think -- maybe even in the earliest dinosaurs.

Scientists had previously identified feathers and so-called dinofuzz in theropods, two-legged meat-eaters that are widely considered the ancestors of birds.

But the Chinese creature, which study authors named Tianyulong confuciusi, is only distantly related to theropods, and the hollow filaments of its fuzz may be primitive feathers, according to scientists who reported the find in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Dinosaurs split into two branches early on, more than 235 million years ago. Theropods belong to one branch, and the Chinese creature is a primitive member of the other branch. The Beijing-based researchers, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, suggest that both branches inherited primitive feathers from common ancestors before or at the split.

Some other experts said they weren't ready to buy that argument. Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, who has written about the origin of feathers, said interpreting Tianyulong's filaments as early feathers was questionable because of their appearance.

There are no known fossils from the first dinosaurs.

The newly discovered creature lived sometime between 144 million and 99 million years ago. It walked on two legs and had a long tail. The specimen -- apparently not an adult -- measured only about 28 inches long overall. It's not clear what the creature ate with its fang-like teeth.

Its remains, laid out on the surface of a stone slab, show three patches of hair-like fuzz. The filaments were generally about 1.5 inches long, but those on the tail were a bit more than 2 inches long.

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