It's rare to find a fossil with preserved flesh even if that fossil is only tens of thousands of years old. The odds of finding such a well-preserved fossil that is 75 million years old is downright incredible.
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But that's exactly what an undergraduate paleontology student at the University of Alberta stumbled upon while scouring for fossils in the Upper Cretaceous Dinosaur Park Formation of Alberta. The remains, which represent an Ornithomimus dinosaur, include preserved skin and tail feathers. They reveal dinosaur plumage patterns in remarkable detail. In fact, the finding is the most complete feathered dinosaur specimen found in North America to date, according to a press release by the University of Alberta.
“We now know what the plumage looked like on the tail, and that from the mid-femur down, it had bare skin,” said Aaron van der Reest, the fossil's discoverer. “Ostriches use bare skin to thermoregulate. Because the plumage on this specimen is virtually identical to that of an ostrich, we can infer that Ornithomimus was likely doing the same thing, using feathered regions on their body to maintain body temperature. It would’ve looked a lot like an ostrich.”
In fact, Ornithomimidae is a genus of omnivorous bipedal dinosaurs that are sometimes referred to as “ostrich mimics.” Like ostriches, this dinosaur would have been flightless. It stood about 6.5 feet tall and had a small head that featured a toothless beak. The discovery sheds even more light on the close evolutionary relationship between dinosaurs and modern birds.
“This specimen also tightens the linkages between dinosaurs and birds, in particular with respect to theropods,” explained Alex Wolfe, second author on the paper. “There are so many components of the morphology of this fossil as well as the chemistry of the feathers that are essentially indistinguishable from modern birds.”
Interestingly, birds are thought to have evolved from a different line of dinosaurs than Ornithomimus, so this dinosaur was not a direct ancestor to birds. This means that the feather features shared between Ornithomimus and modern birds must have evolved in a common ancestor to both, much further back into the past.
“It’s pretty remarkable. I don’t know if I’ve stopped smiling since,” said Van der Reest of his discovery.