Dinosaurs: Our Fine Feathered Friends?

A fossil dinosaur in China appears to have had a mane of feathers running down its neck, back, and tail--making it the first known feathered dinosaur and giving scientists compelling evidence that dinosaurs gave rise to birds.

Paleontologists got their first glimpse of the discovery last week at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The late-breaking find, revealed in the hallways outside the formal presentations, electrified the conference. "What I saw in the photographs put me in an instant state of shock," says Yale paleontologist John Ostrom.

The photos show what appear to be imprints of downlike feathers on a complete Compsognathus skeleton, a chicken-sized dinosaur that lived about 125 million years ago. It's "definitely a dinosaur with feathers," claims Philip J. Currie of the Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Canada, who has seen the fossil, which was unearthed last summer in Laioning Province in northeastern China. Currie and Chen Pei-Ji of Peking University were showing the photos of the skeleton at the conference. "It looks like disheveled hair that extends along both sides of the back and tail," Currie says.

Ostrom and others have argued for years that dinosaurs were ancestors of birds, based on skeletal similarities. But birds had one unique feature--feathers. "We always thought feathered dinosaurs were possible, but to find the real fossil is startling," says Peter Wellnhofer of the Paleontological Museum in Munich, Germany. "It means that these small carnivorous dinosaurs are linked to the origin of birds even more closely than thought before."