Dino Feathers in Fine Form

The fabulous fossil beds of Liaoning Province in China have already produced a half-dozen kinds of feathered dinosaurs. Now comes a skeleton with all its bones intact--and the best preserved plumage yet. "The specimen is gorgeous," says ornithologist Rick Prum of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum in Lawrence. The distribution of feathers, he adds, is "amazingly birdlike."

But the 125-million-year-old creature, not yet named, is unquestionably a type of dinosaur called a dromaeosaur. Features such as three-toed feet indicate it belongs to a group of dinos called theropods, thought to be the closest relatives of birds, report Mark Norell and Gao Keqin of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City and colleagues from the National Geological Museum of China in Beijing in the 26 April issue of Nature.

Like birds, the new dinosaur sports feathers with a central shaft and barbs--key features of flight feathers. But the dromaeosaur's feathers were too small to get it off the ground, Prum says. "This means that feathers are no longer synonymous with birds or with flight, but evolved in theropods long before birds or flight." The feathers might have been used for other purposes, such as keeping warm.

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