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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Birds May Predate Dinosaurs

A rare fossil of a plumed reptile 75 million years older than the earliest known bird is challenging the popular idea that dinosaurs and modern fowl are birds of a feather.

The tiny primordial creature, which predates all but the most primitive dinosaurs, had feathers like a bird, according to new research made public Friday in the journal Science, which has some questioning the theory that birds are descended from the same dinosaur family that gave rise to Tyrannosaurus rex, Velociraptors and other toothsome denizens of a vanished world.

Several scientists were elated by the find, saying it could topple a cherished scientific shibboleth about the origin of birds. Ornithologist Alan Feduccia at the University of North Carolina, a co-author of the new study, called the theory that birds are related to dinosaurs "a delusional fantasy."

Other experts, however, just as quickly dismissed the new finding as a flight of fancy. "This is quackery, basically," said Richard O. Prum, a leading expert on ornithology and the origin of feathers at the University of Kansas, who has seen the fossil.

"I don't believe those things are feathers," said Luis M. Chiappe, an expert on avian evolution at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.

Stirring such partisan passions is a fossil of a four-legged creature perhaps 25 centimeters long that skittered through the groves of central Asia 220 million years ago. At that time, the planet was dominated by a single massive continent and lumbering reptiles were the kings of creation.

Called Longisquama insignis, it was a member of the group of reptiles that gave rise to dinosaurs, crocodiles and birds.

The specimen appears to show a half dozen pairs of unusual feathery spines sprouting like wings from the animal's back. Whether they are true feathers, vanes, spines, weird scales or folds in a flap of membrane is in the eye of the beholder.

The fossil was discovered in Kyrgyzstan in 1969, cursorily examined, and then stored in a drawer at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Paleontological Institute in Moscow for many years, unavailable for detailed analysis.

Not until the fossil came to Kansas last year as part of a touring exhibit of Russian fossils did U.S. scientists have a chance to scrutinize it.

Two paleobiologists from Oregon State University f John Rueben and Terry D. Jones f caught up with the exhibit at a shopping mall, took one look at the fossil and concluded its importance had been overlooked. It appeared to have feathers, they said.

"This animal looks like an ancestral bird even if you ignore the feathers," said Jones, who is now at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. "So we are quite sure we are looking at the earliest feather. That means there is very little chance that feathers could have originated in dinosaurs."

The specimen also shows rows of elongated scales along the creature's front legs, chin and neck that resemble the fringelike ruffles of skin that decorate a modern lizard often sold in pet shops, called a bearded dragon.

Several things convinced Jones and his colleagues that the structures along the animal's back were feathers instead of scales.

They identified a long, thin "shaft" that ran down the center of each structure. A dense row of fine strands called "pinnae" project from either side, Jones said.

The base of the shaft was divided into several subsections, which is thought to be a signature of the complex developmental patterns unique to feathers. The spines also appear to have grown through a tube that unfurled into a feather as it matured, as does modern plumage.

Other experts said the discovery that feathers may have evolved so early does not by itself disprove the relationship between birds and dinosaurs.

At the least, the new fossil find adds to a growing storehouse of evidence that feathers f once thought to be unique to birds f may have been as common among dinosaurs and their predecessors as horns, spikes, elaborate frills and bony crests.