China's Jurassic Park is the site of a new fossil find that could re-write much of what we know about evolution. Paleontologists believe a new biota - or biological group - of feathered dinosaurs may be seen in a well-preserved fossil bed.
Beneath a collection of fossils called the Jehol Biota, are a series of older remains. These include nearly-intact skeletons of feathered dinosaurs. Even some of the soft tissue became fossilized, which is rare among these artifacts. This only occurs during extremely rapid fossilization. Naturalists believe the newly-discovered creatures may have been preserved by a volcanic eruption, similar to what happened to the victims of Pompeii.
"They seem to be from the same environments, lots of trees and probably a lot of water," David Hone, of Queen Mary University in London, told Live Science.
The fossil bed holds the fossilized remnants of dinosaurs, mammals, and reptiles, including one capable of flight. So far, no true birds have been found in the layers of dirt, but paleontologists remain hopeful.
Also present in the feature are remains which may represent the earliest known mammals capable of gliding and swimming. The flying mammal is being compared to a prehistoric flying squirrel. Another species similar to this, Volaticotherium antiquus, was discovered in 2006. Bats did not take to the air until just over 50 million years ago. Pterosaurs, a group of flying dinosaurs, are also seen in the fossil bed. One of the oddest creatures may be a strange buck-toothed dinosaur.
Most of the Jehol Biota fossils are dated to around 130 million years before our time. The new fossils are believed to be 160 million years old, created during the Middle-Upper Jurassic Period. It was at this time birds first began to take to the air. Fossils of flying dinosaurs and early birds are nearly identical, making identification difficult. Hone believes true birds will be found in the fossil bed within ten years.
The older layers of the bed were named Daohugou fossils, after a village near one of the sites. The fossil bed stretches from northeast China to Liaoning Provence.
Researchers are carefully examining the new fossils, placing them among the many families of dinosaurs. More discoveries are likely as the bed is further explored.
"It has only been in the last two to three years that we've recognized that this is a place we should really be looking," Hone told reporters.
Announcement of the new discovery was detailed in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.