Sinosauropteryx prima.
Acrylics and inks on cardboard.


The discovery of this meter-long Chinese dinosaur has sparked one of the hottest Paleontological debates of recent times and has been the 'star'of two consecutive Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings (1996 and 97). It is early Cretaceous, its preservation is remarkable (despite the very crushed skull and scattered bones of the hands and feet ). Soft tissue traces (including skin patches) and even the gut's contents are discernible. But the most remarkable feature appeared to be a mane of hair-like or feather-like structures that run all along the spine and tail. It was discovered by Li Yumin, a farmer and fossil hunter from Northeast China who sold separately the two slabs of the specimen to rival institutions in China. The National Geological Museum from Beijing and Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology had each one slab and counter-slab of the fossil, delaying a detailed full study and description. Recognised after a quick examination by Philip Currie as a feathered or protofeathered compsognathid, the debate was ignited even more with a closer study by John Ostrom, Peter Wellnhofer and Larry Martin who travelled to China to examine the specimens and compare notes. The results were still inconclusive. They proposed a chemical analysis of the feather-like structures to determine if indeed these are feathers of some kind. Close examination of very clear close-up photographs of two specimens ( they are three now) recently published by Audubon magazine (April 1997) left me with very little doubt that the structures are indeed spiny-feathers or at least hair-like protofeathers, and not fibrous muscle tissue (collagen fibres actually look like 'fur', not at all like the conglomerate of rather stiff structures that we can see in Sinosauropteryx) or accidents of preparation of the fossil as it has been argued by some researchers. In the frenzy to try to dismiss the feather-factor, some researchers have gone to the extremes interpreting Sinosauropteryx as the 'first aquatic theropod' (Jones and Ruben at the SVP '97). Claims that a good number of people (myself included) consider preposterous. The corrected reconstruction here is based on my direct traces over the life-size photographs of the fossil and the new information disclosed by a surprise (stellar!) intervention of Philip Currie in the latest SVP meeting. Previously, I reconstructed the animal with two fingers, like a traditional version of a Compsognathid with a frill-like dorsal mane of hair-like structures... things can change fast in Paleontology! The new more complete study of the three specimens tell us that the hair-like or spiny-like 'mane' extended to a good part of the surface of the body, including the arms. Micro-sections of the structures showed that they were actually hollow, bringing an even stronger case for the hair/proto-feather hypotheses. Furthermore the new studies allowed us to reconstruct the hand of Sinosauropteryx with three fingers including an oversized clawed thumb. It probably wasn't a Compsognathid as it was thought before. In any case. I now join the opinion that even Compsognathus itself had three fingers. For me, this fossil represents to our present time what the first Archaeopteryx find was for Huxley and Darwin, and it will finally prove that feathers or proto-feathers are indeed an archosaurian/dinosaurian trait and present in many theropods nondirectly related to Archaeopteryx. We are narrowing the gaps on our knowledge on the origin of feathers, the concept of birds as dinosaurs (or dinosaurs as birds) and the possible relation of insulation and metabolism in the Dinosauria. The puzzle will become a little more clear as more research is done and more discoveries come to light.

 

 

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