Researchers have discovered in north-east China an early bird-like dinosaur they consider to be a new ancestor to today’s birds.

The fossil – about 1 metre long with asymmetrical feathers, considered by scientists to be an important innovation in the evolution of birds – was found in China’s Liaoning province, according to a report published on Tuesday in the magazine Nature.

The animal Jianianhualong tengi, which resembles a modern day chicken or pheasant, is thought to have lived 100 million to 145 million years ago.

The research team led by scientist Michael Pittman hopes the find will shed light on the origins of birds.

Whether the creature could itself fly is unclear, but the feather mantel it wore points to a common ancestor of birds and dinosaurs that possessed advanced aerodynamic characteristics.

The find may also provide insights into the evolution of asymmetrical feathers, which are formed out of narrower outer vanes and wider inner vanes.

The plumage of the newly-found species is also similar to that of the bird ancestor archaeopteryx, with large feathers on the arms and legs and frond-like feathers on the tail. The find seems to confirm that such feathers were widespread among bird-like dinosaurs.

Until the 1990s, feathers were unknown among dinosaurs because only bones and teeth were preserved while softer materials such as hair and feathers decomposed.

The Chinese province of Liaoning contains some of the most important dinosaur fossils in the world, because the fine deposits of ash clouds there and the quick embedding of dead animals allowed the preservation of small details. -DPA


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