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An artist's rendition of Haplocheirus sollers  (Source: Portia Sloan)

The skull of the beast shows similarities to its cousins, the ancestors of modern birds. However, the creature's lacks some of the bird-like features of later members of the family, showing that the features likely evolved in parallel in both birds and the related dinosaur group.  (Source:
Newly discovered dinosaur shows that in evolution lightning can and does strike twice

A newly discovered dinosaur in the Alvarezsauridae group has revealed that bird-like features likely evolved twice, both in dinosaurs and in the ancestors to modern birds.  Previously, the group was thought to be ancestors of modern birds, rather than evolutionary cousins. 

Describes Jonah Choiniere from George Washington University in an interview with BBC News,  "Haplocheirus is a transitional fossil.  Previously we thought the Alvarezsauridae were primitive, flightless birds. This discovery shows they're not and that the similarities between them evolved in parallel."

Like birds, the group of dinosaurs has fused wrists and loosely assembled skull bones, leading many paleontologists to believe that they might be the ancestors of birds.  The beasts may also have had feathers, according to analysis in the late 90s and onward.

However, anatomical analysis of a 3-meter long nearly complete skeleton of a new species in the group indicates that the group likely diverged from the line of dinosaurs that evolved into birds, and that the bird-like features emerged in parallel, not in series.  The new skeleton was dubbed Haplocheirus sollers and was found in the China's Gobi desert.  The skeleton was noticed by a member of a team excavating in the orange mudstone beds in the Junggar Basin of the Xinjiang province.  The member saw the pelvis of the dinosaur sticking out of the ground -- and the rest of the skeleton was found soon after.

Professor Choiniere describes, the results of the subsequent analysis, stating, "The rest of the members of this group have really short forelimbs with huge muscle attachments, like body-builder arms. The fossil shows the first step in the evolution of this weird arm and claw."

The new dinosaur is thought to have lived 160 million years ago, making it the oldest member of the family found to date.  Birds and Alvarezsauridae likely split not long before the evolution of the new find, say researchers.  Both group s likely are descended from the bird-footed dinosaurs of the early Jurassic, which include such famous members as the T. Rex and Velociraptor.

The new find likely was primarily an insectivore (as evidenced by its small teeth).  Its small claws were quite agile and would have been ideal for digging, leading researchers to speculate it likely ate termites, which were plentiful in its era and locale.  However, that likely didn't stop the versatile reptile from trying different cuisine. Describes Professor Choiniere, "It may have had a very general diet, tackling smaller animals like lizards, very small mammals and very small crocodile relatives.  It was a lightly built animal and could run very quickly."

The new work was reported in the journal Science.

The truly fascinating thing about this find is that it fuels the theory that in evolution lightning can, and likely will strike twice -- similar designs can evolve in parallel out of a common need.  Thus much of the anatomy in science fiction -- such as teeth on the titular Alien or giant wings and feathers of the flying monsters of Avatar -- may be realistic.  If life is found on other planets similar to Earth, it may show striking similarities as our own planet's fossil record indicates.

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By amanojaku on 2/1/2010 11:04:15 AM , Rating: 2
Why limit this to flight? Whales know to hold their breath when underwater; maybe the first ones drowned? It seems like evolution is a trial and error process, and not something planned. Each creature on Earth is like a general purpose CPU; each one has basic capabilities (physiology) that can be enhanced with software (behavior, which is the combination of intelligence and experience). But unlike CPUs biology isn't precise; children from the same genetic source are built differently from each other, for unknown reasons.

A bird might have have wings, but it doesn't know it can fly. It has to be taught (behavior), which is what the parents do. But the body has to be capable (physiology), otherwise it could lead to death of the individual, and eventually the species. Since each generation consists of various types of bodies and each parent has varied experience and teaching ability it leads to offspring with various capacities. Those who CAN survive, those who CAN'T die. The ones who survive likely have the required mutations, e.g. stronger wings, light weight body, feathers, etc...

My personal feeling is that mutations occurred first and creatures learned to exploit them. As more creatures developed similar mutations they eventually became characteristics of new species. Just a theory, anyway.

By MozeeToby on 2/1/2010 11:46:14 AM , Rating: 2
Don't forget instincts as a source of behavior; they evolve just like body shape and can take a long time to change, even after the behaviors they program no longer work for the current body shape. I can't remember the name, but I remember reading about a flightless bird that would still climb trees and jump off when confronted with an unexpected predator. Predators are extremely rare on the island they live on, so it was never selected against. Sad and hilarious at the same time.

By Flunk on 2/1/2010 12:11:43 PM , Rating: 2
That's a flightless parrot from New Zealand, the Kakapo.

By wrekd on 2/2/2010 9:28:44 AM , Rating: 1
I like you're idea, but don't forget to take into account bacteria, viruses, and parasites. They are known for transferring genetic material between species. We're not even the same genetic creature throughout our own lives.

"We are going to continue to work with them to make sure they understand the reality of the Internet.  A lot of these people don't have Ph.Ds, and they don't have a degree in computer science." -- RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis

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