Dinosaur Fossil Challenges Bird Evolution Theory
January 25, 2013

Newly Found Fossil Casts Doubts On Archaeopteryx’s Role In Bird Evolution

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

A recently discovered dinosaur fossil believed to pre-date those from which birds were believed to have evolved could drastically change current theories on the origins of flight, according to a new UK study.

According to BBC News, the fossil comes from a feathered-but-flightless dinosaur that was less than a foot in length and lived approximately 140 million years ago. The creature, which has been dubbed the Eosinopteryx, would have had a small wingspan, and its bone structure would have limited its ability to flap its wings, the British news agency added.

The fossils were discovered in China by Dr. Gareth Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Vertebrate Paleontology at the University of Southampton, and colleagues from five other international institutions. According to the researchers, who describe their findings in this week´s edition of the journal Nature Communications, this new species pre-dates the dinosaurs that were previously believed to have been the ancestors of modern flying chordates.

“Over many years, it has become accepted among paleontologists that birds evolved from a group of dinosaurs called theropods from the Early Cretaceous period of Earth´s history, around 120-130 million years ago,” officials from the university said in a statement Thursday. “Recent discoveries of feathered dinosaurs from the older Middle-Late Jurassic period have reinforced this theory,” and the newly discovered species “provides additional evidence to this effect,” they added.

“This discovery sheds further doubt on the theory that the famous fossil Archaeopteryx — or ℠first bird´ as it is sometimes referred to — was pivotal in the evolution of modern birds,” Dr. Dyke, who is affiliated with the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, explained. “Our findings suggest that the origin of flight was much more complex than previously thought.”

In addition to the small wingspan and flight-unfriendly bone structure, the researchers report that the Eosinopteryx had toes that were conducive to walking on the ground. Furthermore, the reduced number of feathers on the creature´s tail and lower legs meant that it would have had an easier time running, they noted.

Dr. Dyke told the BBC that he was “very excited” to study the one-of-a-kind specimen, adding that it was “a well preserved complete skeleton of a small dinosaur.” He also said that it was likely that the Eosinopteryx “would have lived in a forested, swampy environment“¦ I imagine it running around and jumping around from tree trunk to tree trunk, maybe using its wings to speed up its running."

Other researchers credited as co-authors on the study were Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences; Helena Demuynck of Earth System Science Vrije Universiteit Brussel; Dongyu Hu of Paleontological Institute Shenyang Normal University China; François Escuillié of Eldonia France; and Philippe Claeys of Jilin University Geological Museum China.