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Feathery find could rewrite dinosaur history

Scientists in China report that they have unearthed the fossil remains of a small plant-eating dinosaur that sports what appears to be a primitive form of feather.

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The find helps solve a longstanding riddle regarding dinosaurs in North America, the researchers explain. Such pint-sized predators have appeared in the fossil record in Europe, Asia, and the remains today of the once-supercontinent Gondwana. But they seemed to have bypassed North America. No longer.

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These disparate discoveries highlight a revolution that has overtaken paleontology during the past 10 to 15 years, according to Jerry Harris, a paleontologist at Dixie State College in St. George, Utah.

To be sure, the painstaking hunt for fossils in the field is an aspect of paleontology that hasn't changed much over the past few centuries, he explains. But new regions that once were closed to Western scientists because of geopolitical tensions or local political instability have opened up. And scientists have gained access to powerful tools back in the lab that have allowed them to gain deeper insights into the physiology of these creatures.

"There are a lot of new techniques and new technologies that are being applied to paleontology," Dr. Harris explains. These include imaging devices initially designed for medical use, as well as computer models "that allow you to take bone that's been crushed for millions of years in the rocks, undistort what it looked like, and then use the reconstruction to put the muscles back on."

This opens the door to insights into how powerful a creature's arms are or how powerful its bite forces are. In Predator X's case, for instance, scientists using these tools estimate that the reptile's jaws had a bite force of 15 tons – 10 times as large as any of today's creatures and four times stronger than T. Rex's.

In T. confuciusi's case, the evidence for protofeathers, or what some researchers call "dino fuzz," appears as strands emerging from its outer skin. After looking at the strands through a powerful microscope, the team, led by Xiao-Ting Zheng at the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature in Pingyi, China, interpreted what it saw as the stress lines that one would expect from a flattened hollow tube – the typical form of a feather's central shaft. The team is reporting its results in Thursday's issue of Nature.

Other interpretations for the stands have yet to be ruled out, Dr. Witmer notes. They could represent collagen structures from deeper in the skin, rather than protofeathers. Unfortunately, the tools needed to tell the difference require destruction of some portion of the sample.

If it turns out these strands are protofeathers, it could imply that feathers are common to all types of dinosaurs from the get-go or that the two major branches of dinosaurs evolved feathers independently.