The University of Alberta reported that one of its undergraduate paleontology students, Aaron van der Reest, has discovered an “Ornithomimus” dinosaur with preserved tail feathers and soft tissue.
It “is remarkable in the extent and quality of preservation of integumentary structures including feathers,” a science journal, which first published the full details of the discovery, said in a report.
What is also remarkable is that van der Reest – supervised by Philip Currie, Canada’s leading paleontologist – made the initial discovery while he was still in his first year as an undergraduate. “I don’t know if I’ve stopped smiling since,” he said.
The 75-million-year-old fossil, which was located in the Upper Cretaceous Dinosaur Park Formation of Alberta, is now considered the most complete feathered dinosaur specimen found in North America to date and one of only three feathered Ornithomimus specimens in the world.
The University of Alberta also reports that, although the preserved feathers are extremely crushed, scanning electron microscopy revealed a three-dimensional keratin structure – a fibrous protein forming the main structural constituent of body elements like hair, feathers, and hoofs – to the feathers on the tail and body of the dinosaur.
“We now know what the plumage looked like on the tail, and that from the mid-femur down, it had bare skin. Ostriches use bare skin to thermoregulate… using feathered regions on their body to maintain body temperature,” van der Reest said in a statement, adding that, “Because the plumage on this specimen is virtually identical to that of an ostrich, we can infer that Ornithomimus was likely doing the same thing,” In fact, “It would’ve looked a lot like an ostrich.”
This marks the first time that such preserved skin has been discovered on a non-avian dinosaur, one that couldn’t actually fly, and it will help shed a light on the convergent evolution of these dinosaurs with ostriches and emus while also tightening the linkages between dinosaurs and modern birds.
“There are so many components of the morphology of this fossil as well as the chemistry of the feathers that are essentially indistinguishable from modern birds,” Alex Wolfe, second author on the paper, noted.
Most importantly, according to van der Reest, scientists will be able to use the findings on feather evolution and why these animals adapted the way they have to predict how animals will have to adapt in the future in order to survive environmental changes.
“We are getting the newest information on what these animals may have looked like, how they maintained body temperatures, and the stages of feather evolution,” he concluded.
Image Credits: “Illustration of Ornithomimus” by Julius Csotonyi” | Ornithomimus edmontonicus” by Sebastian Bergmann from Siegburg, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons