Dinosaurs didn't die out completely, but instead took wing and evolved into what we now call birds. That's the conclusion of most experts who have seen new fossils of turkey-sized dinosaurs with unmistakable feathers fanning out from their forearms and tails--stunning specimens featured in the 25 June Nature and next month's issue of National Geographic. The plumage also suggests that feathers did not evolve for flight, but were first used for insulation, display, or some other purpose.
The finds come from a site in rural Liaoning Province of northeast China--a place where millions of creatures and plants died suddenly, sometime between 120 million and 135 million years ago (Science, 13 March 1998, p. 1626 ). In the past year and a half, local collectors brought three new specimens with distinct feathers to paleontologist Ji Qiang, director of China's National Geological Museum in Beijing and lead author of the Nature report. The fossils of the two new dinosaur species--Protoarchaeopteryx and Caudipteryx--clearly reveal both downy feathers and more advanced modern feathers, with visible internal structures, including the vane or weblike portion of the feather, with barbs and barbules on either side of the shaft.
Although the feathers link these creatures to birds, their bodies tie them to meat-eating dinosaurs called theropods, the researchers say, including short arms, serrated teeth, a theropodlike pelvis, a bony bar behind the eye. These fossils "provide the best evidence to date that birds were derived from theropod dinosaurs," says Peter Wellnhofer, a paleontologist at the Bavarian State Collection of Paleontology and Historical Geology in Munich.
But such claims ruffle the feathers of a small band of doubters, who believe the ancestors of birds branched off from the reptiles before dinosaurs appeared. The feathers are real enough, says Larry D. Martin, a paleontologist at the University of Kansas, Lawrence--but they just show that the creatures are birds, not dinosaurs. "I think they've found a group of flightless birds," he says. In his avian family tree, the Chinese fossils are the flightless descendants of earlier birds that could fly.