Irish paleontologist Dr. Maria McNamara has been a key contributor to the recent discovery of a primitive, feathered, plant-eating dinosaur from the Jurassic era.
“Up until now, all dinosaurs that had been found with feathers have been very advanced dinosaurs called Therapods,” she explains in a video by University College Cork, where she works. “These include the direct ancestors of today’s birds.”
But the remains that Dr. McNamara and her team of researchers have been studying were from a primitive herbivore, and to everyone’s surprise, the bones had well preserved feathers with very complex branches, which are found in modern birds.
“This strongly suggests that all dinosaurs had feathers,” McNamara explains.
The fossils of new dinosaur ‘Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus’ were initially found in Eastern Siberia by some of McNamara’s Russian colleagues in 2009, in a region by the Olaf River, right near the Chinese border. Kulindadromeus was a small plant-eating dinosaur, only about three feet long. It had short arms and long hind legs, ten fingers, and teeth that were clearly adapted to eating plants.
It was after a few field seasons that her colleagues discovered the feathers on the bones and their significance - they called upon her right away to study the structure and chemistry.
“We can see each filament and how they are joined together at the base [of the arms and legs], making a compound structure of six or seven filaments, each up to 15 mm long." The complexity of the structure was astonishing to researchers; it confirmed that all dinosaurs had feathers, or at least the potential to sprout them. The dinosaur also had scales and short bristles on its tail, head and back.
Research is still at an early stage, but Dr. McNamara explains that they want to look for traces of intact biomolecules such as keratin, which is found in modern bird feathers.
The fact that Dr. McNamara and her global team of researchers even have fossils from the middle Jurassic is quite exciting, since they’re very rare, but this specific discovery has been an incredible breakthrough.
The findings have been published in international academic journal, Science today. Along with the dinosaur fossils, they also found Jurassic plants and insects that they will be studying. They are planning continuous trips to the remote region.