Thursday, October 23, 2008

Shake a tail-feather: Scientists reveal the pigeon-sized dinosaur that is birds' earliest ancestor

A strange pigeon-sized dinosaur that roamed the planet more than 150 million years ago was the oldest known relative of birds, say scientists.

The new species 'Epidexipteryx hui' had large teeth that could rip prey apart and a strange anatomy including long, ribbon-like tail feathers - suggesting the plumage was purely ornamental rather than for flight.
Like the flamboyant peacock, Epidexipteryx may have displayed its tail plumage to attract mates

Dr Fucheng Zhang, of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, said: 'The feathers could potentially have played a role in displays intended to attract a mate, scare off a rival, or send a warning signal to other individuals of the same species.

'This is very exciting indeed, since it gives us a window into a stage of avian history just preceding the appearance of the classic "first bird".'

Its remains were uncovered by farmers from the hills of Inner Mongolia, China, almost a year ago and date back 152 to 168 million years - making the creature slightly older than Archaeopteryx, the most primitive bird yet discovered.

Epidexipteryx is a theropod, a group of two legged animals that includes the
Tyrannosaurus rex. The creature had a mixture of bird-like and dinosaur features. Its body was covered in feathers and part of its skeleton resembled those of present day birds, but it had teeth rather than a beak which were much larger at the front of the jaws.'
Dr Zhang, who describes the creature in Nature, said: 'It is typical for different parts of the body to evolve at different rates, so that some bits end up looking very specialized whereas others remain primitive.'

Epidexipteryx lived in the middle to late Jurassic period in a lush, well vegetated area that was rich in salamanders and other possible prey.

Dr Zhang said: 'One can certainly imagine the teeth being used to snatch at small prey such as lizards, small mammals or even insects.'
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