The fossil of a tiny, feathered dinosaur that lived
124 million years ago in what is now China could reveal clues about
the origins of bird flight.
The creature, named Microraptor, closes the
gap in the fossil record between large meat-eating dinosaurs and
what is thought to be the earliest bird, Archaeopteryx. The
crow-sized dinosaur did not fly but had clawed feet that it probably
used to climb trees.
The discovery adds weight to the theory that small
dinosaurs took to the branches to escape predators, gradually
developing flight. Other scientists argue that fast-running, bipedal
dinosaurs evolved the wings, feathers and muscle structure needed to
take-off from the ground.
The Microraptor fossil came from a rock
formation in western Liaoning, north-east China, that has yielded
more than 1,000 specimens of early birds and feathered dinosaurs.
Xing Xu from the Institute of Vertebrate
Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP) at the Chinese Academy
of Sciences, Beijing, said a local farmer had collected the fossil.
"I first saw it in a private collection - in a farmer's house," Dr
Xu said. "Then with the help of my farmer friend, the IVPP got it."
Scientific scrutiny revealed an adult creature
about the size of a crow, with curved claws similar to those used by
perching birds. Microraptor has been classified as the
smallest non-flying member of the theropods, two-legged meat-eaters
that walked the planet between 230 million and 66.4 million years
The find "further shortens the morphological gaps
between dinosaurs and birds," said Dr Xu. "It suggests that the
paleoecology [the ecology of prehistoric organisms] of some
bird-like dinosaurs is similar to that of early birds," he added.