Feathered dinosaurs might not still be the new boys in town in the fossil world, but there’s still a tonne of cool research being done on them. One of the main fields is trying to figure out if different species were capable of powered flight, like in most modern birds. The recent finding of Aurornis xui appears to have confined the ability to fly just to a single feathered lineage, the one leading to modern birds, but how do we figure out whether they could fly or not?
Reconstruction of Aurornis xui. Credit: Masato Hattori (source)
The origin of bird flight is one of the greatest stories evolution has ever told us in the history of life on this planet. To imagine how organisms that once ran around on the ground have descendants that soar through the skies is truly phenomenal, and represents a truly great leap in increasing the awesomeness of these animals. The secret of how it came about though is hidden away in the fossil record, with the mysterious tale ever-shifting as our understanding of early birds and feather precursors evolved.
Among the many issues with the fossil record is the case of gender identification. In modern organisms, it is usually pretty easy to tell which members of a particular species are the males and which are the females. This can either be through consistently perving on them to figure it out during copulation, or some aspect of their morphology, such as antlers, or you know, a penis or vagina. When it comes to fossil though, we often don’t find these typical gender-distinctive aspects of morphology preserved, as they are usually lost in one form or another to the ravages of time and the process of fossilisation.
I normally really don’t like writing about theropods, especially of the feathered variety, as it just seems like I’m jumping on the bandwagon that they were awesome and every aspect of them needs extensive media coverage. Ok, yeah, they can be pretty cool. But only, for me, in the context of the larger evolutionary patterns that they can reveal to us, such as the evolution of feathers and flight. Each new fossil doesn’t exactly transform our knowledge of this, but they do help us to refine our theories to a certain extent; whether or not that’s worthy of excessive media coverage and Nature publications, is not my judgement to make (no, it’s not).
Childhood memories of dinosaurs have received another shattering blow today. The latest culprit is Yutyrannus huali, a large basal tyrannosauroid from the lower Cretaceous of China, complete with elongate integumental filament structures, or ‘protofeathers’. The etymology is quite special, says lead author Xing Xu, translating into a blend of Mandarin and Latin as ‘beautiful feathered tyrant’. This species is the latest wonder to be exhumed from the fossil treasure trove known as the Yixian Formation, a series of volcanogenic and lacustrine deposits that are currently guiding and re-working our understanding of dinosaur evolution. Of course, being such prominent study, Nature saw fit to pop it behind a $32 paywall.