Paleontologists Unveil New Fossil Finds

Scientists met this week in England to share their findings at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Science News writer Sid Perkins reports on discoveries presented there, including a fossil that may explain the transition from dinosaurs to birds.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. This week, paleontologists from all over the world are meeting in England to share their fossil finds. They're presenting over 100 papers and posters over there on all kinds of creatures and their lifestyles, from the structure of early feathers to the eating habits of giant, swimming reptiles - things that would probably fit the definition of a sea monster.

Another one of the papers would be familiar if you're a regular listening, and that is the life history of a baby mammoth found in Siberia, something we talked about on the show not too long ago. And joining us now from the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is a reporter who has sifted through the science and is here to talk about it.

Sid Perkins is the earth sciences and paleontology writer at Science News in Washington. He joins us by phone from Bristol. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Sid.

Mr. SID PERKINS (Writer, Science News): Happy to be with you.

FLATOW: Thank you. Yesterday, Nature rushed out a paper presented at the conference on a feathered dino. Tell us why they did that and why they rushed that out.

Mr. PERKINS: Well, yeah, this has made quite a splash in the news today, and deservedly so. This was big news on a number of fronts. The paper was given this morning, the oral presentation, and it had to do with the discovery of a peacock-sized, feathered dinosaur excavated from Northeastern China, which is the source of so many feathered dinosaurs in recent years.

This creature, however, is from rocks estimated to be between 151 million and 161 million years old, which is interesting because it predates Archaeopteryx, which scientists consider to be the first bird, by, you know, between one and 11 million years.

So this creature has the oldest feathers that have been found in the fossil record. And that's important because many of the more recent feathered dinosaurs had these simpler types of feathers than Archaeopteryx, even though they were millions of years younger, and some scientists had cast doubt that these structures were even feathers. But this newly described creature has the same sort of structure seen on those more recent dinosaurs. So, you know, time is not out of order anymore.

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FLATOW: So it sort of strengthens the idea that dinosaurs were birds.

Mr. PERKINS: Yes, yes. And actually, it lays in on, also on the origin of flight, because this creature had feathers not only on its forelimbs - which kind of gave it wings, of course, or wing-like structures - but it also had wings on the lower legs and the feet, a series of those that overlapped and form aerodynamic surfaces, essentially giving it kind of a wing on each limb. And this has been seen in other feathered dinosaurs, including a creature called microraptor, and indeed, Archaeopteryx had feathers on its legs.

So several paleontologists told me the fact that this is - seems to be widespread among many species suggests that this four-winged configuration was kind of an important step in the evolution of flight.

FLATOW: Sort of a missing link, then, going back further, pushing back?

Mr. PERKINS: Again, it puts the simpler feathers back before the more modern feathers, which are seen on Archaeopteryx. And the - back to the portion about the four-wing configuration is the fact that you had feathers so very close to the feet, all the way up and down the legs, suggests - one paleontologist told me that this was a tree-dweller, and it's flight kind of, you know, bolsters the notion that flight evolved from the trees down, not the ground up. And he essentially said no dinosaur could walk very well with feathers on its feet like that. So it may not settle the debate, but it might, you know, tip the scales for some folks.

FLATOW: Let's talk about another paper, and this one was about tiny, fossilized footprints.

Mr. PERKINS: Yes. This was a poster session that was given just this afternoon. These were found on the south coast of Korea. They were in rocks between 100, 120 million years old. And the material on those rocks was laid down as silt and a very - excuse me - silt and very fine sand on a riverbank. And the individual tracks, they are three-toed. They have claw marks. They're beautifully preserved.

They were made by a type of bipedal dinosaur called a therapod, which, you know, in much different and much larger scale is, you know, a T-Rex-type creature. But the individual tracks were between one-and-a-quarter and one-and-a-half centimeters long, meaning that the largest one would fit on a penny.

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. PERKINS: And because some of these tracks were part of a set called a trackway, scientists can use the stride length to kind of estimate the size of the creature that made them. And this particular creature was about four centimeters high at the hip and about 10 centimeters tall, or about four inches tall overall. And these scientists were proud to note that the current "Guinness Book" world record of, you know, for small dino tracks, they've beaten that. So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: So this - was this a baby dino, a baby?

Mr. PERKINS: Well, they haven't found the remains of any creature that have made these tracks or similar tracks, but they suspect.

(Soundbite of crackling)

FLATOW: Oh, I think we've lost Sid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Sid was just getting to the part about - oh, that's too bad. Well, I think we're going to probably have to move on and go on without - Sid, we'll have you back.

That was - that's what happens in this modern age, when we go overseas and talk. Sid Perkins, who is the earth sciences and paleontology writer at Science News in Washington, D.C. He was on the on the phone from us from Bristol.

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