Rare fossil of plumed reptile raises questions about dinosaur-bird link

June 23, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

A rare fossil of a plumed reptile 75 million years older than the earliest known bird is challenging the popular idea that dinosaurs and modern fowl are birds of a feather.

The tiny primordial creature, which predates all but the most primitive dinosaurs, had feathers like a bird, according to new research made public today in the journal Science. That has some questioning a widely held theory that birds are descended from the same dinosaur family that gave rise to Tyrannosaurus rex, Velociraptors and other toothsome denizens of a vanished world.

Several scientists were elated by the find, saying it could topple a cherished scientific theory about the origin of birds. Ornithologist Alan Feduccia at the University of North Carolina, a co-author of the new study, called the theory that birds are related to dinosaurs "a delusional fantasy."

However, other experts just as quickly dismissed the new finding as a flight of fancy. "This is quackery, basically," said Richard O. Prum of the University of Kansas, a leading expert on ornithology and the origin of feathers, who has seen the fossil.

"I don't believe those things are feathers," said Luis M. Chiappe, an expert on avian evolution at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.

Stirring such partisan passions is a fossil of a four-legged creature perhaps 10 inches long that skittered through the groves of central Asia 220 million years ago, when the planet was dominated by a single large continent, and lumbering reptiles were king.

Called "Longisquama insignis," it was a member of the group of reptiles that gave rise to dinosaurs, crocodiles and birds. The specimen appears to show a half-dozen pairs of unusual feathery spines sprouting like wings from the animal's back. Whether they are true feathers, vanes, spines, weird scales or folds in a flap of membrane is in the eye of the beholder.

The fossil was discovered in 1969 in Kyrgyzstan, cursorily examined, and then stored in a drawer at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Paleontological Institute in Moscow for many years, unavailable for detailed analysis.

Not until the fossil came to Kansas last year in a touring exhibit of Russian fossils did U.S. scientists have a chance to scrutinize it.

Two paleobiologists from Oregon State University - John Rueben and Terry D. Jones - caught up with the exhibit at a shopping mall, took one look at the fossil and concluded its importance had been overlooked.

It appeared to have feathers, they said.

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