The first ever example of a plant-eating dinosaur with feathers and scales has been discovered in Russia. Previously only flesh-eating dinosaurs were known to have had feathers, so this new find raises the possibility that all dinosaurs could have been feathered.
The new dinosaur, named Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus as it comes from a site called Kulinda on the banks of the Olov River in Siberia, is described in a paper recently published in Science.
Kulindadromeus shows epidermal scales on its tail and shins, and short bristles on its head and back. The most astonishing discovery, however, is that it also has complex, compound feathers associated with its arms and legs.
Birds arose from dinosaurs over 150 million years ago so it was no surprise when dinosaurs with feathers were found in China in 1996. But all those feathered dinosaurs were theropods, flesh-eating dinosaurs that include the direct ancestors of birds.
Lead author Dr Pascal Godefroit from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural History in Brussels said: "I was really amazed when I saw this. We knew that some of the plant-eating ornithischian dinosaurs had simple bristles, and we couldn't be sure whether these were the same kinds of structures as bird and theropod feathers. Our new find clinches it: all dinosaurs had feathers, or at least the potential to sprout feathers."
The Kulinda site was found in summer 2010 by Professor Dr Sofia Sinitsa from the Institute of Natural Resources, Ecology and Cryology SB RAS in Chita, Russia. In 2013, the Russian-Belgian team excavated many dinosaur fossils, as well as plant and insect fossils.
The feathers were studied by Dr Maria McNamara (University of Bristol and University College, Cork) and Professor Michael Benton (University of Bristol), who has also worked on the feathers of Chinese dinosaurs, and Professor Danielle Dhouailly (Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, France) who is a specialist on the development of feathers and scales in modern reptiles and birds.
Dr McNamara said: "These feathers are really very well preserved. We can see each filament and how they are joined together at the base, making a compound structure of six or seven filaments, each up to 15mm long."
Professor Dhouailly said: "Developmental experiments in modern chickens suggest that avian scales are aborted feathers, an idea that explains why birds have scaly legs. The astonishing discovery is that the molecular mechanisms needed for this switch might have been so clearly related to the appearance of the first feathers in the earliest dinosaurs."
Kulindadromeus was a small plant-eater, only about 1m long. It had long hind legs and short arms, with five strong fingers. Its snout was short, and its teeth show clear adaptations to plant eating. In evolutionary terms, it sits low in the evolutionary tree of ornithischian dinosaurs. There are six skulls and several hundred partial skeletons of this new dinosaur at the Kulinda locality.
This discovery suggests that feather-like structures were likely widespread in dinosaurs, possibly even in the earliest members of the group. Feathers probably arose during the Triassic, more than 220 million years ago, for purposes of insulation and signalling, and were only later co-opted for flight. Smaller dinosaurs were probably covered in feathers, mostly with colourful patterns, and feathers may have been lost as dinosaurs grew up and became larger.
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