How can I ever get my long-promised posts done when amazing new dinosaurs keep coming up out of the ground? While the most familiar image of Oviraptor and its relatives as small, beaked theropods, a brand-new fossil out of China shakes things up a bit. Here’s the reconstruction of the fossil put out by Reuters today;
There seems to be little available on this new dinosaur outside of various news-outlet reports (I’ll keep looking for a paper or proper announcement), but I’ve been able to glean a few details from the popular press. The dinosaur, named Gigantoraptor erlianensis, was found in the Erlian Basin in China (which has also produced fossil mammals, check this AMNH paper for details and a map of the region) by Xu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2005, and lived approximately 85 million years ago. Not only does it appear to be the largest Oviraptorid dinosaur known, but (according to the researchers and press reports) the largest feathered dinosaur to boot. The problem with this is, of course, that there doesn’t appear to be any direct evidence of feathers on this dinosaur. From the USA Today report;
“Some experts may not believe this dinosaur had feathers, as it is so big, and we did not find traces of feathers, but from the evidence we unearthed, and all the tests we have done, we are confident in our research”-Xu Xing
The illustration above gives you some idea of the size, but if the researchers that found it are correct their find was only a juvenile. This dinosaur seemed to grow faster than others of similar size (i.e. Tyrannosaurids), and it seems that this particular specimen was not even a full-grown adult. Finding “younger” dinosaurs (hopefully in good preservation environments) will make this case all the more interesting; did juveniles have feathers that adults lacked?
Some writers have also gotten confused about how this dinosaur fits in to the evolutionary scheme of things. From the International Herald-Tribune report;
The height is comparable to the meat-eating tyrannosaurs, but the dinosaur, called Gigantoraptor elrianensis, also had a beak and slender legs and likely had feathers, making it 35 times larger than its likely close relation, the Caudip[t]eryx, a small, feathered dinosaur species, Xu said.
That puts the Gigantoraptor’s existence at odds with prevailing theories that dinosaurs became smaller as they evolved into birds and that bigger dinosaurs have less birdlike characteristics, he said.
Neither Gigantoraptor nor Caudipteryx were the direct ancestor for modern birds, and even the bird Confuciusornis predates both dinosaurs. Bird evolution is certainly complicated, and it speaks to one of the topics that is hardest for the public to grasp. It lies in the same vein as the “If we evolved from monkeys, why are they still around?” type of question, where a linear view of evolution still seems to prevail in the public mind. Why would nature (or God) keep feathered dinosaurs around if there were already birds? Didn’t birds just have one ancestor and therefore only birds should have feathers? Articles about this dinosaur, one which lacks direct evidence for being feathered, seem to further confuse the public about evolution and how it works through feeble attempts to make the discovery relevant. Creationists will probably seize upon this discovery as well, and in the comment sections of the articles (just check out the one for USA Today) the discussions are about whether Einstein believed in God or not rather than discussion about this find.
I’ll probably write more when I can look at the paper myself, which is due in the upcoming issue of Nature. In the meantime, here’s a list of the various outlets covering the story, although most are carbon-copies of each other.
ABC News – China finds new species of big, bird-like dinosaur
NewScientist.com – Feathered dino was twice your height and had claws
USA Today – Gigantic bird-like dinosaur stirs debate
CNN.com – China digs up new dinosaur species
International Herald-Tribune – Fossil of giant, birdlike dinosaur found in China
The Daily Telegraph – ‘Gigantoraptor’ uncovered in the desert