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Prehistoric Feathers Link Dinosaurs To Ostriches, New Study Shows

Oct 29, 2015 10:17 AM EDT
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Researchers from the University of Alberta recently discovered fossilized tail feathers and soft tissues of an Ornithomimus dinosaur that shed light on the evolution of modern-day birds such as ostriches and emus. The fossils were found preserved in the Upper Cretaceous Dinosaur Park Formation of Alberta, Canada. Their finding represents the third feathered Ornithomimus specimen ever found.

"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." Aaron van der Reest, one of the study's researchers, said in a news release.

When examining the tail feathers, researchers found evidence regarding thermoregulation, or the way in which animals maintain their core internal temperatures. Today, ostriches use their bare skin to thermoregulate, or expel heat, and their feathers to insulate their body. Since the fossilized feathers were nearly identical to that of an ostrich, researchers suggest that Ornithomimus was likely regulating its body temperature in the same way. Using this theory, researchers have been able to paint a clearer picture of what this ancient animal once looked like.

"This specimen also tightens the linkages between dinosaurs and birds, in particular with respect to theropods," Alex Wolfe, second author of the study, said in the release.

Theropods, meaning "beast-footed," represent a diverse group of bi-pedal dinosaurs. This group of dinosaurs includes some of the largest terrestrial carnivores that ever walked the Earth, including the Tyrannosaurus rex.  Recent studies have shown that some birds are actually decedents of small nonflying theropods.

"There are so many components of the morphology of this fossil as well as the chemistry of the feathers that are essentially indistinguishable from modern birds," Wolfe added.

This finding helps researchers better understand how the ancient animals were able to adapt to different environments. Using this information, they may be able to predict how modern birds will respond to future climate changes. Their study was recently published in the journal Cretaceous Research

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