The remains of an ostrich-like creature with preserved feathers and soft tissue is shedding light on how dinosaurs used their plumage and further strengthens the links between these ancient beasts and modern birds.
A paleontology student at the University of Alberta discovered the 75 million-year-old skeleton of an Ornithomimus dinosaur in the Upper Cretaceous Dinosaur Park Formation of Alberta – one of only three feathered specimens found in the world. And while the feathers on the specimen were crushed, the researchers were surprised to see how similar they were to modern ostriches or emus.
“We now know what the plumage looked like on the tail, and that from the mid-femur down, it had bare skin,” University of Alberta’s Aaron van der Reest, one of the authors on a study on the discovery that appeared in the journal Cretaceous Research, said in a statement.
“Ostriches use bare skin to thermoregulate. Because the plumage on this specimen is virtually identical to that of an ostrich, we can infer that Ornithomimus was likely doing the same thing, using feathered regions on their body to maintain body temperature," he said. "It would’ve looked a lot like an ostrich.”
The discovery of this flightless dinosaur adds to a growing body of evidence showing that many dinosaurs had feathers and thus “tightens the linkages between dinosaurs and birds,” Alex Wolfe, another University of Alberta researcher and co-author on the study, said in a statement. There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of fossils unearthed since the 1990s in China, which have helped firm up the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs.
“There are so many components that are essentially indistinguishable from modern birds,” Wolfe said.
The University of Calgary's Darla Zelenitsky, who was part of team that discovered the first feathered Ornithomimus, told Fox News that the latest find provides "a more complete picture of the feather covering in Ornithomimus." and is another feature that links "these ornithomimid dinosaurs, commonly known as bird-mimics, to modern birds."
"It’s very exciting that another specimen of Ornithomimus with feathers has been discovered," she said.
"We described the first dinosaurs (also Ornithomimus) with feathers from North America in 2012 and suggested that more feathered dinosaurs could be found here," she continued. "We suggested that dinosaur feathers went unnoticed previously (from North America) perhaps because these fine structures were overlooked or inadvertently destroyed in specimens ... Perhaps others are now paying close attention during the fossil preparation process so feathers are being recognized."
The characteristic features of birds are believed to have evolved slowly about 150 million years ago, and such things as wings and feathers developed over tens of millions of years. But there remain questions over exactly what role the feathers played in dinosaurs like Ornithomimus.
“We are getting the newest information on what these animals may have looked like, how they maintained body temperatures and the stages of feather evolution,” said van der Reest, adding that the findings may be used to further understand why animals have adapted the way they have and to predict how animals will have to adapt in the future to survive environmental changes.
The discovery may also alter future excavation techniques, van der Reest said. “If we can better understand the processes behind the preservation of the feathers in this specimen, we can better predict whether other fossilized animals in the ground will have soft tissues, feathers or skin impressions preserved,” he said.