The newly-described dinosaur lived 150 million years ago and may have been closely related to some of the world’s first fliers.
For the longest time, velociraptors were seen as small scaly predators (thank you, Jurassic Park), but recent research has suggested that many velociraptors (if not all of them) were actually feathered. In fact, researchers have known for a while that the ancestors of velociraptors were feathered and even possibly capable of flight. But this particular dinosaur is bound to stir some spirits in the paleontology world since it seems to contradict a long-held assumption about how flight emerged.
The fossil was first found by accident when a team was excavating a huge 34-meter-long (111 feet) sauropod. Unfortunately, before researchers realized there was another fossil there, a shovel dug right through its snout, destroying parts of it. Much of the fossil, however, remained intact.
It wasn’t until the team extracted and cleaned up the fossil that they started to realize its significance. Hesperornithoides miessleri, as the dinosaur was named, is known from this sole specimen, nicknamed Lori. After the initial dig, which took place in 2001, Lori was left unstudied for many years. But when Bill Wahl, preparation laboratory manager at the dinosaur center, showed the specimen to Dean Lomax, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester, all that changed.
Lomax was excited to see the small fossil and had a hunch that there was something unusual about it. However, he struggled to properly study the fossil. It wasn’t until 2016, when an intense crowdfunding campaign was carried out, that he was able to bring the small raptor to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a week of intense studying. That’s when the team confirmed that the dinosaur is a troodontid — an early relative of the velociraptors (which lived 75 million years ago). These were chicken-sized creatures, but they were speedy and ferocious. They were also covered in feathers, so it was kind of like a faster chicken with a long tail, says Lomax.
But here’s the kicker: Hesperornithoides lived in an open, marshy area with no trees to speak of. It ran on the ground rather than gliding — and yet, it features many features that we associate with birds. Although it almost certainly wasn’t a flier itself, it may represent one of the earliest forerunners of modern birds.
The history of flying gets a bit messy during the Jurassic time. It has become increasingly clear that flying didn’t emerge neatly in one species to then be passed along. Instead, several groups of creatures developed flight-like features. Some were tree-gliding or using wing-like features to help steer at fast speeds. Others, like Hesperornithoides, lived on the ground. Naturally, a simple question emerges: if Hesperornithoides couldn’t fly, and wasn’t gliding… why did it have feathers and wings?
It’s not exactly clear, but several theories have been suggested. Wing feathers, particularly large feathers, can help maintain ideal thermal conditions for eggs, which is important to ensure reproductive success. They can also be a means of display, whether it’s to persuade a potential mate or to scare away predators. Wings can also help with steering during fast running. It’s quite possible that one or several of these justifies the formation of feathers even without flight.
The finding is also a reminder that sometimes the same old geological formation can yield new findings. The Morrison Formation, where the fossil was found, covers a vast swath of the western U.S. centered on Wyoming and Colorado — and it’s been studied for over 100 years. However, paleontologists were mainly looking for large sauropods and have only recently started to focus on smaller dinosaurs.
“Hesperornithoides is a stark reminder to paleontologists that little gems can be found hidden away in these same layers of rock,” says University of Calgary paleontologist Darla Zelenitsky.
The study ‘A new paravian dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of North America supports a late acquisition of avian flight’ was published in the journal PeerJ.