Fuzzy, Was He?

A recent discovery has scientists wondering if feathers on dinosaurs cropped up earlier than thought

Mar 20, 2009 | By Jonathan Rosenbloom

 

A recent discovery of a dinosaur fossil hidden in a museum in China has scientists trying to solve a hair-raising mystery: Did the earliest dinos have fuzz on their bodies? And if they did, was that fuzz an early type of feather?

The dinosaur that started scientists talking has been named Tianyulong confuciusi. It lived between 144 million and 99 million years ago. It's a lot smaller than the massive Tyrannosaurus rex. The fossil is of a dino that was a little less than three feet long, with sharp, fang-like teeth. Scientists say the creature walked on two legs and had a tail. No one is sure what it ate. The fossil has three patches of stiff, hair-like fuzz on its body and tail. Some dino experts think the fuzz might have been early feathers. These patches are about 1.5 inches to 2 inches long.

Branching Out

Scientists already know that some dinos, called theropods, had feathers. These dinos walked on two legs. They ate meat and were the early ancestors of birds. (The giant T. rex was a theropod.) But what's unusual about the China fossil is that it isn't a theropod. Instead it is a member of another branch of the dinosaur family. (Dinosaurs divided into two branches more than 235 million years ago.)

If Tianyulong had feathers, it might mean that feathers cropped up in dinos much earlier than scientists had thought. Feathers may have started to grow on some dinosaurs before the branches split. Then, scientists say, the theropods may have kept their feathers. But other dinos may have lost their feathers during millions of years of evolution.

Not everyone agrees with this idea. Lawrence Witmer of Ohio University said no one can be sure that Tianyulong's fuzzy patches really are early feathers. It's possible, Witmer says, that the patches are some sort of tissue that may have been inside the dinosaur.

"Little Tianyulong has made an already confusing picture of feather origins even fuzzier," noted Witmer. One thing is certain, however: Dino experts say they'll be looking more closely at any new fossils they dig up as they search for clues to when dinosaurs started growing feathers.