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Tiny dino gives hints as to bird origins

Latest update : 2008-10-22

Chinese scientists have worked on a little dinosaur, as big as pigeon, who lived about 150 million years ago and concluded this Epidexipteryx could lead to a better understanding of the origins of birds, according to Nature magazine.

A tiny, egg-robbing dinosaur that lived more than 150 million years could help explain a key phase in the evolution of birds, scientists reported on Wednesday.

In unusual language for a high-brow journal, Chinese palaeontologists admit the wee dino was, frankly, "bizarre".

The beast was a distant relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex but was no bigger than a kitten. And it was covered in feathers but couldn't fly.

The creature lived between 152 and 168 million years ago, according to analysis of its fossil, found in Daohugou in Inner Mongolia, northern China.

Dubbed Epidexipteryx hui, the mini-dino was a two-footed predator, known as a therapod, that lived in the Middle to Late Jurassic era between 152 and 168 million years ago.

It probably weighed no more than 164 grammes, or just over five ounces, and fed opportunistically on eggs it found or stole, according to the paper, which appears in the British weekly journal Nature.

E. hui lived shortly before the famous Archaeopteryx, which arrived on the scene around 150 million years ago and is generally considered to be the first bird.

Despite its many dinosaur features, Archaeopteryx is believed to have been capable of powered flight.

Yet one of the many questions about the "early bird" scenario is exactly why dinosaurs evolved feathers.

Did feathers provide warmth, for instance, or a means of flight, enabling a tree-living dino to jump or glide to safety from a perch or to find food?

The Chinese team, led by the fossil-hunter Xing Xu of the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropoloy in Beijing, say a clutch of long, ribbon-like feathers on E. hui's tale points to a different function.

They believe the unusual plumage was "integumentary ornamentation" -- a decorative attachment that helped in mating.

Rather like the peacock spreads out his tail fan to lure a female, the dinosaur would show his feathers in courtship to demonstrate his fitness.

E. hui's name derives from a Greek composite meaning "feather display" and from Yaoming Hu, a Chinese expert in Mesozoic mammals who died in April this year after a long illness, aged only 42.

Date created : 2008-10-22

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