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New Fossils Show Ostrich-like Dinosaurs Sported a Coat of Plumage

Bits of ancient feathers and skin still clung to the exquisitely preserved fossils

An illustration of Ornithomimus based on the findings of preserved tail feathers and soft tissue (Julius Csotonyi)
smithsonian.com

It’s pretty widely known that dinosaurs weren’t terrible reptiles so much as terrible giant birds—many complete with feathers. But whether the fluffy dinos were covered in fuzz or sported feathery ornaments was yet to be determined. But a new discovery suggests that the "bird mimic" dinos, or Ornithomius, probably looked a lot like ostriches.

Paleontologists have long known that this group of Mesozoic dinosaurs shared the same leggy stature, periscope-like neck, and toothless grin that today’s flightless birds do, reports Brian Switek for National Geographic. And in 2012, the discovery of three different specimens of Ornithomimus revealed that the critters likely sported feather-like bristles and fuzz.

Now, a new discovery of an excellently preserved Ornithomimus specimen in Canada confirms that the creatures were coated in ostrich-like feathers, recently described in study published in the journal Cretaceous Research.​​

Lead author Aaron van der Reest, who discovered the fossil as an undergraduate, spent two years carefully preparing a fossil found in Dinosaur Provincial park, reports Ivan Semeniuk for The Globe and MailBut all that work was worth it. ​ 

"It’s drop-dead gorgeous,” David Evans, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, who was not involved in the discovery, tells The Globe and Mail. "It is the most complete feathered dinosaur specimen found in North America to date."

The beautiful feathers of this new specimen show how the dinosaurs likely lived.

The feathers "lack the hook-like structures that help keep bird feathers stiff and air-resistant during flight," writes Semeniuk. In addition, these barb-less, droopy feathers formed a fairly even coating over most of the body, except (like a modern ostrich or emu) on the legs from the mid-femur down. Similar to the modern ostrich, the bare legs would have helped the dinosaurs radiate body heat, Switek writes for National Geographic

The fossil is so well preserved that the legs of the bone are still wrapped in fossilized skin. The river bed where the creature was fossilized kept the bones relatively undisturbed, though the feathers were mostly crushed by the sediment.

Further study of the fuzz could show if these feathers flashed vibrant colors and even if dinosaurs used their plumage for display like birds, Semeniuk reports. Regardless of the future information to glean from this exquisitely preserved fossil, it's an amazing find. 

"It's pretty remarkable," van der Reest says in a press statement. "I don't know if I've stopped smiling since."

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