Although the dinosaurian hypothesis of bird origins is widely accepted, debate remains about how the ancestor of birds first learned to fly. Here we provide new evidence suggesting that basal dromaeosaurid dinosaurs were four-winged animals and probably could glide, representing an intermediate stage towards the active, flapping-flight stage. The new discovery conforms to the predictions of early hypotheses that proavians passed through a tetrapteryx stage.
Troodontid dinosaurs form one of the most avian-like dinosaur groups. Their phylogenetic position is hotly debated, and they have been allied with almost all principal coelurosaurian lineages. Here we report a basal troodontid dinosaur, Sinovenator changii gen. et sp. nov., from the lower Yixian Formation of China. This taxon has several features that are not found in more derived troodontids, but that occur in dromaeosaurids and avialans. The discovery of Sinovenator and the examination of character distributions along the maniraptoran lineage indicate that principal structural modifications toward avians were acquired in the early stages of maniraptoran evolution.
Non-avian dinosaurs are mostly medium to large-sized animals, and to date all known mature specimens are larger than the most primitive bird, Archaeopteryx. Here we report on a new dromaeosaurid dinosaur, Microraptor zhaoianus gen. et sp. nov., from the Early Cretaceous Jiufotang Formation of Liaoning, China. This is the first mature non-avian dinosaur to be found that is smaller than Archaeopteryx, and it eliminates the size disparity between the earliest birds and their closest non-avian theropod relatives. The more bird-like teeth, the Rahonavis-like ischium and the small number of caudal vertebrae of Microraptor are unique among dromaeosaurids and improve our understanding of the morphological transition to birds. The nearly completely articulated foot shows features, such as distally positioned digit I, slender and recurved pedal claws, and elongated penultimate phalanges, that are comparable to those of arboreal birds. The discovery of these in non-avian theropods provides new insights for studying the palaeoecology of some bird-like theropod dinosaurs.
Tyrannosauroids are one of the last and the most successful large-bodied predatory dinosaur groups, but their early history remains poorly understood. Here we report a new basal tyrannosauroid from the Early Cretaceous Yixian Formation of western Liaoning, China, which is small and gracile and has relatively long arms with three-fingered hands. The new taxon is the earliest known unquestionable tyrannosauroid found so far. It shows a mosaic of characters, including a derived cranial structure resembling that of derived tyrannosauroids and a primitive postcranial skeleton similar to basal coelurosaurians. One of the specimens also preserves a filamentous integumentary covering similar to that of other coelurosaurian theropods from western Liaoning. This provides the first direct fossil evidence that tyrannosauroids had protofeathers.
Spectacular fossils from the Early Cretaceous Jehol Group of northeastern China have greatly expanded our knowledge of the diversity and palaeobiology of dinosaurs and early birds, and contributed to our understanding of the origin of birds, of flight, and of feathers. Pennaceous (vaned) feathers and integumentary filaments are preserved in birds and non-avian theropod dinosaurs, but little is known of their microstructure. Here we report that melanosomes (colour-bearing organelles) are not only preserved in the pennaceous feathers of early birds, but also in an identical manner in integumentary filaments of non-avian dinosaurs, thus refuting recent claims that the filaments are partially decayed dermal collagen fibres. Examples of both eumelanosomes and phaeomelanosomes have been identified, and they are often preserved in life position within the structure of partially degraded feathers and filaments. Furthermore, the data here provide empirical evidence for reconstructing the colours and colour patterning of these extinct birds and theropod dinosaurs: for example, the dark-coloured stripes on the tail of the theropod dinosaur Sinosauropteryx can reasonably be inferred to have exhibited chestnut to reddish-brown tones.
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