National News

A Feathered Dinosaur

Posted December 18, 2017 7:05 p.m. EST

Perhaps it was soft, even fuzzy. But it was also very much a dinosaur.

Anchiornis was a four-winged birdlike species that lived about 160 million years ago, and many fossil specimens have been found in China. A number of them were discovered with preserved feathers, but until recently the feathers had not been described in detail.

Anchiornis (the name means “near bird”) was about 14 inches long from its beak to the end of its tail, barely larger than a pigeon but much more impressive. It had long feathers on its four wings, and appendages ending in claws.

Anchiornis did not, however, have the reverse toe that lets modern birds perch. It climbed trees, clinging with all four feet.

A recent study in Palaeontology takes a close look at its feathers. Anchiornis had small bushy plumes covering its back and neck, unlike its straighter wing and tail feathers.

These short feathers provided insulation and may have been water-repellent. But they were not as efficient at either task as the feathers of modern birds.

Anchiornis probably glided down from trees, like a flying squirrel, but more likely was incapable of powered flight. The feathers on the wings and tail lacked the curved aerodynamic structure that allows for flight.

“Paleontologists got excited when we learned that birds are dinosaurs,” said the lead author, Evan T. Saitta, a doctoral student at the University of Bristol in England. “But we have to remember that these things are much older and more primitive than birds. Feathers don’t evolve overnight. These are steppingstones on the way to modern birds.”

The paper includes an artist’s reconstruction of Anchiornis. “I think this is one of the most lifelike depictions of any dinosaur,” Saitta said. “It’s based on several lines of evidence, several papers, that all work toward giving us an idea how this animal looked.”