Did Birds Evolve from Dinosaurs?

Updated May 8, 2019 | Infoplease Staff

Feathered fossil fascinates scientists

by David Johnson

The fossil of this feathered, lizard-like creature is one of several disputes in the evolution of birds and their relationship to dinosaurs. The creature lived 220 million years ago. The most recent discovery is the Microraptor zhaoianus, which some say is a feathered dinosaur. (Source:orst.edu)

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The recent discovery of a fossil of a feathered bird-like creature the size of a crow has prompted more discussion on whether birds evolved from dinosaurs, and on how they began to fly.

Known as Microraptor zhaoianus, the creature lived 124 million years ago in northeastern China. Some press reports called it a feathered dinosaur.

Are Birds and Dinosaurs Cousins?

Most scientists believe birds are descended from dinosaurs. Other experts suggest birds and dinosaurs are separately descended from a common reptilian ancestor.

However, Microraptor zhaoianus does seem similar both to modern birds and to advanced, meat-eating dinosaurs. A meat-eater with teeth, Microraptor zhaoianus did not fly. Its curved claws, similar to those of modern perching birds, were probably used to climb trees and to escape predators. It had feathers.

Feathered Dinosaurs Debated

The fossil indicates that feathers, which likely evolved from reptile scales, developed before the origin of modern birds. Other fossils from China show that some dinosaurs themselves had feathers. However, some scientists dispute this finding, stating that the fossils were actually some type of flightless birds.

Origins of Flight

The uncertainty extends to the origins of flight. A common view is that flight evolved when animals on the ground began to run at increasing speeds, gradually becoming able to leap through the air. Other people believe flight developed when tiny dinosaurs began climbing trees and then began gliding. If this theory is correct, then Microraptor zhaoianus might indeed provide the missing link between birds and dinosaurs.

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