New Dinosaur Bolsters Bird-Dino Connection

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The extended bird family tree just gained a new and distinctive member, according to an international team of scientists.

They have found a long-legged, toothy, stubby-armed, three-fingered dinosaur that was an important early member of the lineage that includes birds and their closest dino relatives.

The 160-million-year-old dinosaur, Haplocheirus sollers, is about 10 million years older than what is believed to be the world's first known bird, Archaeopteryx. It exhibits characteristics associated with both dinos and birds, but the new dinosaur was not a very close relative to birds, as some researchers had previously thought.

Nevertheless, the new species helps to fill in the fossil record and cement the long-held view that birds did indeed emerge out of the Maniraptora "hand snatcher" clade.

"Many dinosaurs are very bird-like and early birds are dinosaur-like," co-author Xing Xu told Discovery News, adding that there is still debate over the exact moment when birds first emerged.

"It is more or less depending on what you call a bird a bird, which is somewhat an arbitrary procedure," said Xu, a professor in the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology & Paleoanthropology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "For example, Epidexipteryx (a small, feathered "dinosaur") could be considered to be the earliest representative of the avian lineage."

For the study, published in the latest issue of Science, Xu and his colleagues, led by Jonah Choiniere of The Washington University, analyzed the new dinosaur, discovered in orange mudstone beds at Junggar Basin in Xinjiang, China. According to Xu, the researchers determined it was "a relatively small carnivorous dinosaur" about 6.5 feet long with a slender head and "numerous small teeth."

The "hand snatcher" description seems quite appropriate in this case, since the dinosaur's hands had three strong fingers, with the first finger being "much more robust than the others."

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