Could a fossil specimen strengthen the link between dinosaurs and modern birds, and offer unique insight into the evolution of the awe-inspiring extinct creatures?

An undergraduate paleontology student from the University of Alberta in Canada discovered and led the study of an Ornithomimus dinosaur showcasing preserved tail feathers and soft tissue, making groundbreaking discovery on the species’ evolutionary adaptation.

According to Aaron van der Reest, who was tasked to lead the research since the fossil’s discovery in Dinosaur Provincial Park in 2009, theirs is the first analysis of preserved skin that forms a web from the femoral shaft to the abdomen — something not yet witnessed previously in non-avian dinosaurs.

“We now know what the plumage looked like on the tail, and that from the mid-femur down, it had bare skin,” he said.

The plumage of the fossil is identical to that of ostriches, which use bare skin for thermoregulation. “We can infer that Ornithomimus was likely doing the same thing,” van der Reest said, referring to the extinct creatures using feathered regions on their body in order to maintain body temperature.

Dinosaurs classified as ornithomimids are, in fact, typically called “ostrich mimics.”

The research used scanning electron microscopy to address the extremely crushed condition of the preserved feathers. The scan revealed a 3D keratin structure to the tail’ and body’s feathers.

The specimen is one of just three feathered Ornithomimus specimens on Earth and offers a glimpse of their evolution to various environments. The findings are deemed useful in forecasting the future adaptation of animals to survive ecological conditions.

The paper’s second author, Alex Wolfe, confirmed that their research strengthens the link between dinosaurs and birds, specifically in relation to theropods. He cited the specimen’s morphological parts and the feathers’ chemistry as “indistinguishable” features from modern birds, which were thought to have evolved from a different dinosaur group.

According to Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at Los Angeles’ Natural History Museum, the new findings are important in that they offer details, for instance, on pigmentation that would dictate feather color.

He argued, however, that one fossil will not hold all the answers and would make further studies necessary.

“It’s about putting together all the pieces,” Chiappe said.

Van der Reest, who is now 34 years old and has 10 years of experience with dinosaur fossils, said he will continue to work on the research, adding that he has dreamed of working on such massive fossil find since he was a young boy growing up in Ontario.

Photo : Roland Tanglao | Flickr

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