Washington DC - A small, flying reptile older than most dinosaurs may have sported a set of feathers, suggests a study in the 23 June issue of Science. The evidence comes from a fossil approximately 220 million years old, about 75 million years older than the oldest known bird, Archeopteryx.
According to the interpretation by Terry Jones, of Oregon State University, and coauthors, the strong similarities between the fossil feathers and modern day bird feathers suggest an evolutionary link between the two.
Although the exact relationship between the reptile, named Longisquama insignis, and modern birds is uncertain, these findings may pose a challenge to the prevailing theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs. (See the related News article by Erik Stokstad, to be available on 21 June.)
Longisquama was an archosaur, a member of the group of reptiles that gave rise to dinosaurs, crocodiles, and birds. The lizard-like creature was "a little tiny guy, about ten inches long from head to tail," said coauthor John Ruben, also of Oregon State University. Elongated scales adorned Longisquama's long arms, perhaps for use in gliding, and its back.
According to coauthor Larry Martin, of the University of Kansas, the fossil was discovered more than three decades ago in central Asia by a Russian paleontologist who specialized in insects. When the scientist published the first report of the fossil in 1970, he described a row of long narrow appendages down the animal's back, interpreting them as a frill of extremely long scales.
Martin contends, however, that "the slightest breeze would have toppled the animal over" if the structure had been a frill.
A later Russian study revised the picture, describing two parallel rows of supposed scales and proposing that Longisquama may have been able to pivot to form a pair of wing-like structures. Still, the appendages continued to be described as scales.
Contact: Heather Singmaster
American Association for the Advancement of Science