All dinosaurs may have had feathers

by Mary Caperton Morton
Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Artist's reconstruction of the feathered Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, an ornithischian from the Jurassic. Credit: Andrey Atuchin.

Since the first feathered dinosaur was discovered in China in 1996, more and more feathered theropod specimens have been found. Now, a new nontheropod fossil found in Siberia and described in Science suggests that all species of dinosaurs may have had feathers.

The new meter-long fossil, dubbed Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, belongs to the ornithischians, a group completely separate from theropods. More than half of all known dinosaur species are classified as ornithischians, and the discovery marks the first time that a dinosaur outside of the theropod lineage has been found with clear evidence of feathers. Previously, ornithischians had been found in China sporting quill-like structures, but it was unclear whether the fossils represented true feathers.

Discovered in Jurassic-aged lake sediments at two locations in Siberia, the K. zabaikalicus specimens feature feather-like filaments on the head and back and more complex, grouped filaments between 10 and 15 millimeters long around the legs. These grouped filaments may have resembled the downy feathers seen on modern chicks more than the plumage of adult birds and likely served as insulation long before being adapted for flight.

“The fact that feathers have now been discovered in two distinct groups — theropods in China and ornithischians in Russia — means that the common ancestor of these species, which might have existed 220 million years ago, also probably had feathers,” said lead author Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels in a statement. “The discovery has completely changed our vision of dinosaurs.”

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