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Smuggled Chinese dinosaur to fly home.

On a tip from a colleague, paleontologist and artist Stephen Czerkas visited a Utah fossil sale earlier this year. What he found there made his heart jump: an impression of a tiny animal that appeared to have the feathers of a bird but the long, bony tail of a dinosaur.

To Czerkas, this fossil, taken illegally from China, documented a crucial, hitherto unknown stage in the evolution of birds. "It's a missing link that has the advanced characters of birds and undeniable dinosaurian characters as well," he says.

His excitement, however, mixed with fear that a collector would purchase the fossil and squirrel it away. Czerkas quickly located a benefactor, who donated money to buy the fossil for the Dinosaur Museum, which Czerkas and his wife run in Blanding, Utah.

At a press conference last month at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., Czerkas and his colleagues announced that they would return the fossil to China after its scientific evaluation. They also revealed the first details about the feathered dinosaur, which they have named Archaeoraptor liaoningensis.

The newfound fossil comes from the northwest Chinese city of Liaoning, the fabulously fossil-rich locale that has yielded several new species of birds and dinosaurs with feathers. Archaeoraptor differs from these other dinosaurs because its skeleton indicates it could fly yet it retained features characteristic of dinosaurs like Velociraptor. For instance, the tail vertebrae had bony extensions that stiffened the tail and kept it off the ground.

Archaeoraptor bolsters the hypothesis that birds evolved from bipedal carnivorous dinosaurs known as theropods (SN: 9/18/99, p.183), says Philip J. Currie of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alberta.

"Our whole idea of what dinosaurs looked like is changing pretty drastically," says Currie, who is participating in the study of the specimen. The feathers on Archaeoraptor and other Chinese dinosaurs suggest that many theropod species could have sported feathers, including Tyrannosaurus rex when it was young. Feathers, however, would have hindered adult versions of such large theropods by causing them to overheat, says Currie.

Not surprisingly, these ideas get a poor reception among the small group of paleontologists that discounts the connection between birds and dinosaurs. "Archaeoraptor is one of the worst preserved specimens in a long line of poorly preserved specimens," says Larry D. Martin of the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Martin, who has seen photos but not the actual specimen, says he couldn't identify feather impressions surrounding the fossil, nor could a Kansas colleague who traveled to Washington to see the fossil on display at National Geographic. Martin also says that the fossil appears to be a composite made by putting together pieces of two facing sides of a split slab--called part and counterpart by paleontologists. He wonders whether elements from other specimens have gotten mixed in. "We should look at this and make sure it's all one animal," he says.

Czerkas confirms that the Chinese fossil hunters who found the specimen did glue together sections of the part and counterpart, but he argues that the fossil is from one individual.
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Title Annotation:fossil of Archaeoraptor liaoningensis to be returned to China
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 20, 1999
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