Flying Dinosaurs

Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds

John Pickrell
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/pick17178
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  • Book Info
    Flying Dinosaurs
    Book Description:

    The discovery of stunning, feathered dinosaur fossils coming out of China since 2006 suggest that these creatures were much more bird-like than paleontologists previously imagined. Further evidence -- bones, genetics, eggs, behavior, and more -- has shown a seamless transition from fleet-footed carnivores to the ancestors of modern birds.

    Mixing colorful portraits with news on the latest fossil findings and interviews with leading paleontologists in the United States, China, Europe, and Australia, John Pickrell explains and details dinosaurs' development of flight. This special capacity introduced a whole new range of abilities for the animals and helped them survive a mass extinction, when thousands of other dinosaur species that once populated the Earth did not. Pickrell also turns his journalistic eye toward the stories behind the latest discoveries, investigating the role of the Chinese black market in trading fossils, the controversies among various dinosaur hunters, the interference of national governments intent on protecting scientific information, and the race to publish findings first that make this research such a dynamic area of science.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53878-7
    Subjects: Paleontology, Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Philip Currie

    Towards the end of the twentieth century there was a flurry of publication of dinosaur books, so much so that even professional palaeontologists stopped noticing the new titles. It was therefore with genuine surprise that I read the book in your hands, because I was impressed by how many exciting discoveries have been made in the last decade or so, and how much we have learned about the biology of dinosaurs.

    One area in particular – the origin and diversification of birds – has seen an astounding turnover of productive discovery and research. Yes, I was part of many of these discoveries,...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: A whole new world
    (pp. xv-xx)

    Imagine, if you will, a world filled with billions of dinosaurs. A world where they can be found in thousands of shapes, sizes, colours and classes in every habitable pocket of the planet. Imagine them from the desert dunes of the Sahara to the frozen rim of the Antarctic Circle – and from the balmy islands of the South Pacific to the high flanks of the Himalayas. The thing is, you don’t have to imagine very hard. In fact, wherever you live, you can probably step outside and look up into the trees and skies to find them. For the dinosaurs...

  6. Before we begin
    (pp. xxi-xxvi)

    I want to start by clearing up some common misconceptions about dinosaurs. If you’re a dino buff then you’ll probably know all of this already and want to skip forward a few pages.

    Dinosaurs are a group of reptiles defined by many features of their skeletons – most particularly the fact they hold their limbs erect beneath them rather than out to their sides in a sprawling posture as lizards and crocodiles do. Dinosaurs are made up of two major subgroups: the saurischian or ‘lizard-hipped’ dinosaurs, which included the giant long-necked sauropods (such asDiplodocus) and all the bipedal, predatory theropods...

  7. 1 The missing link
    (pp. 1-16)

    Our story begins in the Altmühl Valley in Bavaria, Germany. It looks nothing like Bavaria now, for we have stepped back 147 million years into the past, to the Late Jurassic period, and the land here is part of a subtropical island archipelago much nearer to the equator than today. An ominous-looking afternoon thunderstorm has rolled in and gravid clouds are pelting the shallow lagoons with a torrent of tepid raindrops.

    The warm waters teem with jellyfish, crustaceans, corals and other invertebrates, as well as fish, crocodiles and large marine reptiles such as ichthyosaurs. Swooping through the skies above are...

  8. 2 A feathered revolution begins
    (pp. 17-29)

    In August 1996, when a young farmer in his 30s, Li Yinfang, pulled the fossil of an unusual chicken-sized dinosaur from the ground near the village of Sihetun in north-eastern China’s Liaoning Province, he had no idea the specimen would be one of the greatest fossil finds of the 20th century – one that would ignite a furious debate and ultimately confirm that birds are descended from dinosaurs. Liaoning had already yielded many Early Cretaceous fossils of remarkable quality, particularly early birds preserved in exquisite detail – and this specimen was no exception.

    One of these birds,Confuciusornis, had been discovered nearby...

  9. 3 The dinosaur hunters
    (pp. 30-46)

    In April 2005, Xu Xing was working with a Japanese documentary film crew to re-enact his earlier discovery of a long-necked sauropod calledSonidosaurusat a dig site in Inner Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Crouched in the dirt on the bank of a dry river in the Erlian Basin, Xu and Lin Tan, his local collaborator, selected a large fragment of thighbone at random and began to brush the dirt away to demonstrate the art of fossil collection. But the film crew got more than they’d bargained for, ending up with footage of a much more candid nature. Xu, the world’s...

  10. 4 From dinosaur to bird
    (pp. 47-65)

    Sometime in the early Cretaceous, a duck-sized dinosaur scratches, stretches and curls up among the fern fronds near the forest floor to sleep. She folds her hind limbs up beneath her body, and her feathered forearms in against her sides, before turning her long neck back and tucking it behind her elbow in much the same way birds roost, with their heads under their wings. The position is one this little meat eater adopts each day come nightfall, and it helps her keep warm in the chilly air. During her peaceful slumber a blanket of noxious gas from a volcanic...

  11. 5 Fake fossils
    (pp. 66-82)

    A hotly anticipated press conference was held in Washington, DC on 15 October 1999 byNational Geographicmagazine. With much fanfare, they announced the discovery of a new feathered fossil from China that was a chimera with a fascinating mix of characters. A team of palaeontologists, enthusiastic amateurs and editorial staff were behind the naming and description of the species, dubbedArchaeoraptor liaoningensis. It was to be unveiled in the November issue of the magazine. In an article covering the crop of feathered dinosaurs discovered in the preceding few years, senior assistant editor Christopher Sloan wrote: ‘With arms of a...

  12. 6 The evolution of feathers
    (pp. 83-103)

    If you could step back to the Late Jurassic, 160 million years ago, and conceal yourself in the prehistoric foliage of Mongolia, you’d see something remarkable. Between the tree ferns and cycads, an unusual-looking bird would appear. It tidies up a clearing – removing fronds, sticks and other debris. Then, with a dramatic flourish, the pigeon-sized creature stands on tiptoe, puffs up its strikingly coloured plumage, and starts to dance jerkily from side to side, all the while producing clicks and shrill little calls. Most conspicuous are its four long tail feathers, which flick and waft as it shimmies to an...

  13. 7 The struggle to the skies
    (pp. 104-117)

    One hundred and twenty million years ago, in the Early Cretaceous of north-eastern China, a dinosaur little bigger than a raven is using his sharp claws to scramble up the trunk of an ancient conifer. A shimmering golden sliver of morning sun crowns the distant horizon and bathes the treetops in orange light, illuminating the mist hanging between them. This miniature relative ofVelociraptoris covered in long, glossy, blue–black feathers. He pauses on a mossy branch to preen them, carefully probing his plumage with tiny teeth and smoothing the feathers down again with his snout and claws.

    Unlike...

  14. 8 Sex for T. rex
    (pp. 118-132)

    Xu Xing may be a modern-day Indiana Jones, but larger-than-life Roy Chapman Andrews may have been the inspiration for the character. In the early 20th century he was an explorer, naturalist and fossil hunter with the AMNH, leading a series of major expeditions in Asia aimed at finding hominid (early human) fossils. Images from the 1920s show him astride a horse, clad in khakis and a broad-brimmed hat. One of his famous catchphrases was: ‘Always there has been an adventure just around the corner … and the world is still full of corners.’

    He was also director of the AMNH...

  15. 9 Colouring in the dinosaurs
    (pp. 133-149)

    Ninety-four million years ago a vast inland sea runs the length of North America from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Its waters are an effective barrier that divides the landmasses of Laramidia to the west and Appalachia to the east, and both are home to a diverse and unique fauna of early birds and feathered theropods. Predatory reptiles stalk the waterways too, and among their number is a lone ichthyosaur of a kind known asPlatypterygius. Shaped something like a fat dolphin, this 7-metre-long air breather is highly adapted to life in the oceans. She has massive...

  16. 10 Back from the dead
    (pp. 150-161)

    It’s 5 am on a Tuesday in October sometime in the mid-21st century and something astounding is about to happen. Nothing quite like it has happened for tens of millions of years. At a lab in the Midwest of the United States a group of sleep-deprived researchers and other eager observers are gathered around an incubator. They are staring intently at what appears to be a clutch of chicken eggs.

    Several of the eggs are trembling and there’s an insistent tapping of little creatures struggling to break out. Fluffy feathers start to poke through and cracks appear as the eggs...

  17. 11 The survival game
    (pp. 162-175)

    Sixty-six million years ago, in the last few moments of quiet before the Cretaceous era comes crashing to a close, a herd of duck-billed hadrosaurs is gathered around a small stream at the edge of a forest on a cool and clear night. The reflection of the moon in the water ripples into a thousand pieces as several stoop to drink. Illuminated by the moonlight, small nocturnal dinosaurs festooned in feathers move between the nearby branches; some scramble, others glide or flap, on the hunt for tasty morsels. Sharing the same trees are flocks of birds, most silently perched and...

  18. Relationships of the theropod dinosaurs
    (pp. 176-176)
  19. An A–Z of feathered dinosaurs
    (pp. 177-190)
  20. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  21. References
    (pp. 191-204)
  22. Glossary
    (pp. 205-206)
  23. Select bibliography
    (pp. 207-207)
  24. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 208-208)
  25. Index
    (pp. 209-222)