Scientists in China report that they have unearthed the fossil remains of a small plant-eating dinosaur that sports what appears to be a primitive form of feather.
Since their discovery in the 1990s, feathered dinosaurs have flocked together – their fossil features shepherding them into a broad group of meat-eating beasts whose modern descendants sit on utility lines, tug on earthworms, or decorate statues.
On Thursday, however, scientists in China will report that they have unearthed the fossil remains of a small plant-eating dinosaur that sports what appears to be a primitive form of feather, or protofeather.
The creature, dubbed , occupies a spot on the earliest known limb sprouting from what might be called the vegan branch of the dinosaur family tree.
The implication: The origin of the feathers that fill down quilts and adorn peacocks could reach as far back as 230 million years – back to the dawn of dinosaurs themselves.
The find is likely to send paleontologists scrambling to take a fresh look at fossils languishing in museum storage rooms to see if they can find other protofeather candidates.
"We never dreamed that this whole branch of dinosaur evolution would have feathers," says Lawrence Witmer, a paleontologist at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. "We can now go back and look at existing fossils with new eyes and maybe start to see telltale signs in some of these other animals that tip the evidence one way or another as to whether we're looking at feathers or scales in these dinosaurs."
The newly described creature, nearly 18 inches long, appears to have been a "living fossil" in its own time some 125 million years ago. By then, its direct ancestors already had been around for 70 million years. They shared a common ancestor with the likes of bony-plated creatures such as Stegosaurus and Triceratops.
It's the third of three fossil finds this week that have generated superlatives.