image 8269 1e Dineobellator notohesperus
Imagecredit: Sergey Krasovskiy 

For those who are doing home teaching during this period, some kids might love to learn about a new feathered dinosaur that has just been discovered in the US southwest. They are about the shape and size of the Velociraptors, made famous by popular culture through movies like Jurassic Park.

According to the evidence and relative to the age of dinosaurs, they only existed briefly.  After less than a million years as a species, from space came a big rock.  Bang! After that mass extinction crisis, the only dinosaurs theoretically left were the ones who could fly, which this one couldn't. The ones in the oceans theoretically died off because of abrupt climate changes, hypothetically due to intense volcanic activity after the asteroid strike, causing both deep freezes and global warming with rising seas. That hypothetically destabilized the marine dinosaurs’ vital ecosystems within which they were dependent on food, reproduction and existence.

Marjorie Courtenay Latimer and Coelacanth
Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer discovered this coelacanth, formerly only seen in fossils millions of years old, in a fisherman's catch. It was given the name Latimeria chalumnae in her honor.--Wikipedia

About 80 years ago, a fish, the Coelacanth, was discovered by Marjorie Eileen Doris Courtenay-Latimer, a South African museum curator. This large fish, which lived with the dinosaurs back to 240 million years ago with the evolution of the first dinosaurs, and even everything that happened on the planet since 400 million years ago, close to the Cambrian explosive evolution of most land animals and larger marine lifeforms according to the fossil record, had been absolutely considered extinct after the asteroid strike. A fisherman who knew that Miss Courtenay-Latimer was looking for unusual animals in their catch, called her. "I picked away at the layers of slime to reveal the most beautiful fish I had ever seen," she recalls thinking. "It was five feet (150 cm) long, a pale mauvy blue with faint flecks of whitish spots; it had an iridescent silver-blue-green sheen all over. It was covered in hard scales, and it had four limb-like fins and a strange puppy dog tail." Since her discovery, many others have been found, even different species of it.

I’m sharing this slightly off-subject information for two reasons. As with the newly discovered fossil remains of the feathered Dineobellator notohesperus, our understandings of life on this planet prior to the asteroid strike almost 66 million years ago into the Yucatan of Mexico – which resulted in the evolution of human beings today ravaging our planet’s ecosystems into yet another extinction crisis right under our noses – is under constant and ever more focus and change with each new discovery. And also because this fish, which survived the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary mass extinction crisis, played an important role in the habitats of all marine dinosaurs who had ever evolved. It has survived all 5 of the known mass extinction crises. Will it survive the current one, which many geologists and biologists are calling the Anthropocene Mass Extinction Crisis, for which humans are responsible?

Anyways, the "...Dineobellator notohesperus’ tail also possessed unique characteristics. While most dromaeosaurids’ tails were straight and stiffened with rod-like structures, the tail of this dinosaur was rather flexible at its base, allowing the rest of the tail to remain stiff and act like a rudder.

“Think of what happens with a cat’s tail as it is running. While the tail itself remains straight, it is also whipping around constantly as the animal is changing direction,” Dr. Jasinski, of the University of Pennsylvania, State Museum of Pennsylvania and one of the dinosaur's discoverers.

“A stiff tail that is highly mobile at its base allows for increased agility and changes in direction, and potentially aided Dineobellator notohesperus in pursuing prey, especially in more open habitats.”

Dineobellator notohesperus provides a clearer picture of the biology of North American dromaeosaurids, especially concerning the distribution of feathers among its members.

“As we find evidence of more members possessing feathers, we believe it is likely that all the dromaeosaurids had feathers,” Dr. Jasinski said.

“The discovery also hints at some of the predatory habits of a group of iconic meat-eating dinosaurs that lived just before the extinction event that killed off all the dinosaurs that weren’t birds.” 

Click on Nature for the full peer-reviewed scientific paper on this feathered dinosaur. 

You may be wondering why dinosaurs who don’t fly would have evolved feathers. Many assume that feathers evolved for flight, but that’s not true. It theoretically happened as an accident, a mutation, within some genes, particularly “the Sox2 gene, for instance, [which] can turn on feather budding and totally inhibits scale formation.”

The research behind the evidence, including manipulating stem cell molecules for scales on alligators to form primitive proto-feathers, suggests that dinosaurs going back as far as 250 million years ago with their most ancient ancestor, the Archosaur group, had this regulator gene which would hypothetically later enable adaptation to colder climates. Feathers are better insulators than scales, and since dinosaurs were warm blooded, the pressures of a colder climate, for example, could have triggered the gene to produce these proto-feathers. The fossil record thus far indicates it happened about 150 million years ago. So when that adaptation succeeded in producing more feathered dinosaurs, the characteristic radiated out into evolutionary success, especially as the adaptation interacted with other genes that could define the ever more complex feather structures that enabled flight... and suddenly the sky was the limit, a whole new habitat from which to escape a predator attack, and from which to attack prey.  Researchers also suggest that flightless feathered dinosaurs, such as with the newly discovered Dineobellator notohesperus, were perhaps slightly better than their scaly counterparts at evading scaly predators, and to better succeed in hunting prey.


Bent Lorentzen

Bent Lorentzen

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