A new feathered dino fossil has turned up, Xiaotingia zhengi, and it’s a beaut!
Xiaotingia was found by a collector in China’s Liaoning Province, a hotbed for feathered-dino fossils, and sold to the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature. Paleontologists led by Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences analyzed the fossil’s skeletal measurements in detail and fed them into a computer database with measurements from 89 fossilized dinosaur and bird species, including Archaeopteryx.
It’s also divergant from modern birds, but shares enough characteristics with Archeoptryx that it pulled the latter a bit out of the line leading to extant aves. Which, predictably, has the creationist lobby all tingly:
One claims that a big hole has just been blown in an icon of evolution, but that the “tenured Darwin bores” are all flapping their hands and telling everyone to ignore the damage. Another claims that evolutionary biology was looking for a simple linear trajectory in avian evolution, and now it’s shown to be a complex mess, therefore…what? Because creationists have a misconception about what was expected, evolution is wrong?
This guy is from the Late Jurassic, about 155 million years ago according to the Satanic practice of radiographic dating. That puts it square in the midst of what I’d call the prehistoric world’s best equipped flying dino evolutionary laboratory.
We’ll probably never know the true breathtaking diversity of these creatures. Fossilization is a rare event for big massive dinos, rarer still for smallish fine-boned, delicate creatures like. But one thing we do know, the Late Jurassic had an arrangement of continents favoring the evolution of birds and their cousins.
I don’t want to post images yet, but if you clicked on that Jurassic link you saw a watery gap between proto Eurasia and North America. Back then there were no significant polar caps, that shallow sea was warm year round, and dotted with islands large and small. The closest analogue today might be something like the span between Southeast Asia and Australia. In the space of a few hundred miles there would be tiny, volcanic islands, sand bars, atolls, mini archipelogos, and sizable islands, all sandwiched between big continents overflowing with forests and mountains and plains. Throw feathered dinos and other flying vertbrates into that mix and they have all the fish, insects, clams and other yummy treats their little rapidly beating hearts could desire.
It’s an evolutionary petri dish writ large that persisted for millions of years. Long enough for critters to set up shop locally and specialize, long enough for others to develop vast migration patterns, and long enough for some to grow flightless and large, and for all we know maybe even back to small and flying again. One would expect to see great diversity in such an environment. Too bad creationists offer the same tired arguments again and again to dismiss all that wonder.