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September 26, 2009

Dino Feathers

Archaeopteryx is generally recognized as the first bird, despite some dinosaur-like features. When it was first discovered, many scientists did not accept it as proof that birds evolved from dinosaurs. It was a nice hypothesis, but there was little supporting evidence.

Since then, the body of evidence has grown quite a lot. In China, there are fossils of Velociraptors and other small theropods that have feathery imprints along the neck, skull, and arms. These feathers resemble pin feathers on a young bird, however; they are not fully developed feathers, like those you'd see on a bird.  Also, none of these feathers were much older that Archaeopteryx itself. This was a time paradox that needed resolution before paleontologists could definitely say that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

I said "was": the oldest feathers discovered to date were recently unearthed in China. In two separate locations, a species known as Anchiornis huxleyi was discovered. One of these specimens is incredibly well-preserved, showing detailed imprints of feathers all over its body. The way these feathers are structured shows that Anchiornis had 4 wings: two on the arms, two on the legs. And, the creature is over 150 million years old... 10 million years older than Archaeopteryx.

As paleontologist Michael Benton puts it, "Now these fantastic new discoveries by Professor Xu prove that [feathers arouse before Archaeopteryx appears in the fossil record] once and for all." It is an exciting, and fairly conclusive, piece of evidence, showing that birds truly are the dinosaurs among us.

Credit: BBC News-Dinosaurs had 'earliest feathers'
Archaeopteryx Image Credit: Wyoming Dinosaur Center