For many years, scientists have believed that dinosaurs were the prehistoric ancestors of contemporary birds, but a recently uncovered fossil suggests that this was in fact not the case. The sparrow-sized relic in question, named Scansoriopteryx by its discoverers, was found in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.
Scientists originally classified Scansoriopteryx as a dinosaur but have since recanted on that opinion. Thanks to advanced 3D microscopy and high resolution imaging, researchers were able to observe certain traits that were not readily apparent beforehand. These newly observed traits showed that the creature lacked the correct skeletal structure for classification as a dinosaur. They now believe the species to be more akin to early birds whose ancestors were likely tree-climbing archosaurs that lived long before the more well-known massive reptiles.
The tiny tree-climbing species offers scientists “the key to unlocking the door” separating dinosaurs from birds, said Dr. Stephen Czerkas, one of the co-authors of a Journal of Ornithology study detailing the findings. Czerkas works at the Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah. University of North Carolina scholar Dr. Alan Feduccia, who also co-wrote the paper on Scansoriopteryx, stated that the fossil validates the theory claiming that dinosaurs were not the ancestors of birds. Scientists should instead view the two groups as distinctly separate, he said.
Scansoriopteryx has several avian features, such as wing and hind limb feathers, elongated forelimbs, wrist-like bones shaped like half-moons, feet designed for perching and claws that make tree-climbing possible. These features indicate that the species likely mastered the basic aerodynamic skill of gliding from tree to tree.
The fossil was not the only set of ancient bones making headlines this week. In a historic ceremony on Thursday, American officials returned to Mongolia the bones of more than 18 dinosaurs. The collection of over 30 fossils was recovered after federal prosecutors and officials at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department launched a joint operation against a smuggler. The bones were removed from Mongolia between 2005 and 2012. Law enforcement personnel broke the case after agents discovered illegal shipments of mislabeled bones that were making their way into the country.
According to Homeland Security Investigations Special Agent James T. Hayes, a commercial paleontologist by the name of Eric Prokopi pleaded guilty to the smuggling charges. He disassembled a Tyrannosaurus bataar skeleton in order to sneak it into the country, where he later reassembled it before selling the bones for over a million dollars. The 39-year-old Prokopi, who hails from Williamsburg, Virginia, cooperated with authorities and also alerted them to skeletons that they were unaware of at the start of the investigation. He was sentenced to three months in prison.
Investigators also recovered a second Tyrannosaurus batarr skeleton, a Protoceratops, a group of avian-like Oviraptors, several Gallimimus, a composite fossilized egg and a number of prehistoric turtles. The Protoceratops was approximately the size of a Labrador Retreiver, while the Gallimimus were similar to ancient ostriches.
This is the second time that the US has returned a Tyrannosaurus skeleton to Mongolia, with the first instance being in May of last year. The more recently returned fossils will go on display at a national museum in the east-central Asian country.
While the high-profile skeletons will likely have more of an impact on the general public, the Scansoriopteryx specimen is already making waves in the world of academia. By supporting the notion that dinosaurs were not the ancestral forefathers of birds, the tiny fossil has forced scientists to rethink their understanding of the relationships between the two groups.
By Yitzchak Besser