A college student found prehistoric proof of an evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and birds.
In 2009, a team of scientists from the University of Alberta discovered a dinosaur.
OK, OK, it was just a partial skeleton of a dinosaur. But it was remarkably well-preserved.
It was unearthed in a fossil-rich area known as Dinosaur Provincial Park. This particular specimen's head and arms were missing, so, at the time, the team of paleontologists decided it was less of a priority than some of the other uncovered fossils and shelved it.
A few years later, the team handed it off to undergraduate student Aaron van der Reest to see if there was anything worth exploring further. You know, just in case.
Just minutes into the project, van der Reest made a monumental discovery: well-preserved dinosaur feathers.
The team had discovered the skeleton of an Ornithomimus (Latin for "bird mimic"), a dinosaur that lived over 75 million years ago. The Ornithomimus stood over two meters tall, but more than that, it had fine feathers covering its neck, back, and tail. Its legs, however, were completely bare.
Many scientists believe birds and dinosaurs have a biological connection and this finding is one more piece of prehistoric proof.
To date, scientists have discovered three Ornithomimus skeletons, but the discovery of such well-preserved soft tissue and feathers makes this a rare and exemplary specimen. After years of extensive preparation and additional research, the team (lead by van der Reest) published their analysis of the feathers last week.
The Ornithomimus was a fast-moving, flightless creature. Why did it have feathers?
The paleontologists examined the feathers under an electron microscope and discovered a structure that is very similar to a modern-day ostrich feather.
Like the Ornithomimus, ostriches are fast-moving, can't fly, and have bare legs. They use their feathers as an efficient way to regulate their body temperature. Van der Reest and his team believe that Ornithomimus most likely used its feathers in the same way.
While it's widely acknowledged birds and dinosaurs have an evolutionary connection, this discovery provides proof of an important missing link.
"By knowing that this method [of temperature regulation] was being used so early in the origins of birds we can get important insight into the evolution of temperature control in large ground-dwelling birds like ostriches and emus," van der Reest told the Huffington Post.
Birds are thought to have descended from carnivorous predators like Archaeopteryx, and Hesperornis, due to their bone shape and egg features. But this breakthrough suggests there may be a common ancestor at the top of the avian family tree.
Hats off to van der Reest for turning a seemingly ordinary undergraduate project into a seriously awesome dino-discovery!