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Contact:
Barbara Moffet
+1 202 857 7756
bmoffet@ngs.org

Ellen Siskind
+1 202 857 7001
esiskind@ngs.org

NEW BIRDLIKE DINOSAURS ON VIEW: COULD T. REX HAVE HAD FEATHERS?

For Immediate Release

WASHINGTON—Three fossil dinosaurs from China with stunningly birdlike bones and indications of feathers—one a species completely new to science—are to be unveiled October 15 at the National Geographic Society’s Explorers Hall. The fossils provide new, persuasive evidence of the link between dinosaurs and birds and of the belief that feathers were widespread among meat-eating dinosaurs, maybe even Tyrannosaurus rex.

The fossils, never displayed before, are the most recent to come out of China’s Liaoning Province, the area that has produced other fossils of feathered dinosaurs. All of the animals were fast, bipedal meat-eaters known as theropods. The dinosaurs’ story is told in the November issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine by senior assistant editor Christopher P. Sloan.

The three fossils represent two species introduced in recent months as well as one—the most birdlike of them all—that is completely new to science. The three species:

  • Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, presented for the first time in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, is a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds. It seems to capture the paleontological “moment” when dinosaurs were becoming birds.

    Archaeoraptor, which lived more than 120 million years ago, had a dramatic combination of physical characteristics—a very advanced, birdlike shoulder structure, wishbone and big sternum—all indicating the animal was a powerful flier. Remains of feathers surround the specimen’s bones. Yet its tail was strikingly similar to the stiff tails of a family of predatory dinosaurs known as dromaeosaurs, which includes the “raptors” of Jurassic Park.

    “This mix of advanced and primitive features is exactly what scientists would expect to find in dinosaurs experimenting with flight,” NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine says.

    The remarkable specimen from China originally was found on the open market in the United States and brought to the attention of Stephen and Sylvia Czerkas, directors of the Dinosaur Museum of Blanding, Utah; museum patrons then secured the fossil for scientific study. However, because of the fossil’s extraordinary significance the directors plan to return it to an institution in China after in-depth study.

    A life-size, foot-tall reconstruction of Archaeoraptor by Stephen Czerkas will help bring the animal to life in the exhibit.

  • Sinornithosaurus millenii—“Chinese bird-reptile of the millennium”— is a dromaeosaur with long arms and a coat of downy feathers, a shoulder girdle and birdlike wishbone. “If you saw just this shoulder girdle, you would think it was Archaeopteryx, the earliest bird,” said paleontologist Xu Xing of China, who has been involved in identifying and studying the species. Barracuda-like teeth and long, curved claws give the animal a fierce look. A model of Sinornithosaurus, arms outspread like a bird’s, also will appear in the exhibit. Xu will attend the exhibit opening and discuss the species, which was first announced in September.

  • Beipiaosaurus inexpectus—“surprising lizard from Beipiao”—a long-necked, long-clawed theropod, is at 7 feet (about 2 meters) in length the largest feathered dinosaur yet found. The fossil bears pink, comblike impressions that suggest stiff, narrow feathers. Beipiaosaurus did not fly but may have used the feathers for insulation. That species, identified after Chinese farmers discarded the bones, thinking they had no commercial value, was unveiled earlier this year.

These dinosaurs support the concept that early feathers evolved for insulation or display rather than flight. And because today the only creatures covered with feathers or hair have the high metabolic rates of warm-blooded animals, the discovery gives new weight to the idea that these dinosaurs were warm-blooded.

The discoveries mean that depictions of many species may have to change as museums rethink the appearance of these precursors of modern birds. And that may include T. rex, at least T. rex young: When they were small, they could have used the feathers for warmth. “If adult T. rex had feathers, it was probably only for display,” said Philip Currie, curator of dinosaurs at Canada’s Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta, who has helped identify the species.

One dinosaur has already made the switch: The National Geographic exhibit will showcase a model of a dromaeosaur known as Deinonychus—in full plumage.

The dinosaurs will be on display October 15, 1999, through January 18, 2000. Explorers Hall is on the first floor of the National Geographic Society’s headquarters at 17th and M Streets N.W. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET. Admission is free. For more information on the exhibits, the public should call +1 202 857 7588.

National Geographic EXPLORER will feature exclusive television coverage of the new dinosaurs in “Dinosaurs Take Wing,” to air at 8 p.m. PT/ET on Sunday, November 14, only on CNBC.

Audio and video coverage of the press preview will be available online at: www.nationalgeographic.com/events/99/feather. More details at www.ngnews.com. Explore the question of “Why Feathers” at www.nationalgeographic.com/dinorama.

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October 15, 1999

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