Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Anchiornis, the “nearby bird”

The word Anchiornis defines a dinosaur genus: small, feathered, deinonychosauria (“fearsome claw lizards”) belonging to the family Troodontidae. The genus name Anchiornis is based on the Greek roots anchi and ornis, meaning “nearby” and “bird,” respectively. The name highlights the close relation between these feathered lizards of the Cretaceous period and birds [1].  Anchiornis huxleyi is currently the only known species of this fossil genus—included in the scientific name is an epithet that honors Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), an English biologist, who pioneered research into avian origin.

A recent Keanium article in the journal Chemical Heritage shows a striking artist's rendering of Anchiornis [2]. The article describes how insight in the dinosaur-bird relationship (or evolution of birds) is gained by the study of pigments such as melanin, found in fossil feathers—dino fuzz. Identification and scanning electron microscope-supported analysis of fossilized and surviving melanosomes in proto-feathers of fossil animals from northeastern China allow the reconstruction of dinosaur and early bird's color patterns [3]. While the dinosaur-bird debate is still going on, proto-birds such as Anchiornis already shine in brilliant colors and bring art and science together.

Keywords: paleontology, anatomy, evolution, dinosaurs, birds, feathers, melanin.

References and more to explore
[1] Xu Xing et al.: A new feathered maniraptoran dinosaur fossil fills a morphological gap in avian origin. Chinese Science Bulletin 2008, 54 (3), 430-435. DOI: 10.1007/s11434-009-0009-6.
[2] Sam Kean (artist's rendering by Michael DiGiorgio): Colored In. Chemical Heritage Summer 2012, 30 (2), page 5 [].
[3] Chris Sloan: Dinosaur True Colors Revealed for First Time. National Geographic January 2010 [].

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