text-only page produced automatically by LIFT Text Transcoder Skip all navigation and go to page contentSkip top navigation and go to directorate navigationSkip top navigation and go to page navigation
National Science Foundation
News
design element
News
News From the Field
For the News Media
Special Reports
Research Overviews
NSF-Wide Investments
Speeches & Lectures
NSF Current Newsletter
Multimedia Gallery
News Archive
News by Research Area
Arctic & Antarctic
Astronomy & Space
Biology
Chemistry & Materials
Computing
Earth & Environment
Education
Engineering
Mathematics
Nanoscience
People & Society
Physics
 

Email this pagePrint this page


Press Release 09-123
Beaked, Bird-like Dinosaur Tells Story of Finger Evolution

This image shows a reconstruction of Limusaurus with no evidence of feather structures.

This image shows a reconstruction of Limusaurus with no evidence of feather structures.
Credit and Larger Version

June 17, 2009

Scientists have discovered a unique beaked, plant-eating dinosaur in China. The finding, they say, demonstrates that theropod, or bird-footed, dinosaurs were more ecologically diverse in the Jurassic period than previously thought, and offers important evidence about how the three-fingered hand of birds evolved from the hand of dinosaurs.

The discovery is reported in a paper published in this week's edition of the journal Nature.

"This work on dinosaurs provides a whole new perspective on the evolution of bird manual digits," said H. Richard Lane, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s Division of Earth Sciences, which funded the research.

"This new animal is fascinating, and when placed into an evolutionary context it offers intriguing evidence about how the hand of birds evolved," said scientist James Clark of George Washington University.

Clark, along with Xu Xing of the Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, made the discovery. Clark's graduate student, Jonah Choiniere, also was involved in analyzing the new animal.

"This finding is truly exciting, as it changes what we thought we knew about the dinosaur hand," said Xu. "It also brings conciliation between the data from million-year-old bones and molecules of living birds."

Limusaurus inextricabilis ("mire lizard who could not escape") was found in 159 million-year-old deposits located in the Junggar Basin of Xinjiang, northwestern China. The dinosaur earned its name from the way its skeletons were preserved, stacked on top of each other in fossilized mire pits.

A close examination of the fossil shows that its upper and lower jaws were toothless, demonstrating that the dinosaur possessed a fully developed beak. Its lack of teeth, short arms without sharp claws and possession of gizzard stones suggest that it was a plant-eater, though it is related to carnivorous dinosaurs.

The newly discovered dinosaur's hand is unusual and provides surprising new insights into a long-standing controversy over which fingers are present in living birds, which are theropod dinosaur descendants. The hands of theropod dinosaurs suggest that the outer two fingers were lost during the course of evolution and the inner three remained.

Conversely, embryos of living birds suggest that birds have lost one finger from the outside and one from the inside of the hand. Unlike all other theropods, the hand of Limusaurus strongly reduced the first finger and increased the size of the second. Clark and Xu argue that Limusaurus' hand represents a transitional condition in which the inner finger was lost and the other fingers took on the shape of the fingers next to them.

The three fingers of most advanced theropods are the second, third and fourth fingers-the same ones indicated by bird embryos-contrary to the traditional interpretation that they were the first, second and third.

Limusaurus is the first ceratosaur known from East Asia and one of the most primitive members of the group. Ceratosaurs are a diverse group of theropods that often bear crests or horns on their heads, and many have unusual, knobby fingers lacking sharp claws.

The fossil beds in China that produced Limusaurus have previously yielded skeletons of a variety of dinosaurs and contemporary animals described by Clark and Xu.

These include the oldest tyrannosaur, Guanlong wucaii; the oldest horned dinosaur, Yinlong downsi; a new stegosaur, Jiangjunosaurus junggarensis; and the running crocodile relative, Junggarsuchus sloani.

This research was also funded by the National Geographic Society, the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation, the Jurassic Foundation and the Hilmar Sallee bequest.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, cdybas@nsf.gov
Michelle Sherrard, GWU, (202) 994-1423, mcs1@gwu.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:
NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

The Limusaurus skeleton was found preserved with a small crocodile skeleton.
The Limusaurus skeleton was found preserved with a small crocodile skeleton.
Credit and Larger Version

A cross-section of the fibula of Limusaurus, used to determine the animal's age.
A cross-section of the fibula of Limusaurus, used to determine the animal's age.
Credit and Larger Version

This block of sediment contained the Limusaurus skeleton just before it was collected.
This block of sediment contained the Limusaurus skeleton just before it was collected.
Credit and Larger Version



Email this pagePrint this page
Back to Top of page