Montana State University

Encounter by MSU, Chinese paleontologists leads to new paper on origin of birds

December 11, 2014 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

The troodontid dinosaur, “Mei,” shows the tuck-in sleeping posture of a bird. (Photo by Mike Ellison). This is a fossil of the long-tailed bird Jeholornis. (Photo by Jizantang). This is a fossil of the Jurassic feathered dinosaur, Anchiornis. (Photo by Jizantang).

The troodontid dinosaur, “Mei,” shows the tuck-in sleeping posture of a bird. (Photo by Mike Ellison).

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BOZEMAN – A casual conversation in the Japanese city of “fortunate” led to renowned paleontologists from Montana State University and China publishing a paper together in the Dec. 12 issue of the journal Science.

David Varricchio and Xing Xu -- who wrote that birds definitely descended from dinosaurs -- were attending a conference in Fukui, Japan last year when they struck up a conversation during one of their breaks, said Varricchio, associate professor in MSU’s Department of Earth Sciences. When Xu told Varricchio about the paper he was writing, Varricchio suggested that he might be able to contribute. Modern birds were thought to have developed from dinosaurs, and Varricchio is an expert on dinosaur reproduction from theropods to birds.

The encounter resulted in Varricchio becoming co-author on the Science paper titled “An integrative approach to understanding bird origins.” Xu is the lead author. Among the other five co-authors is Gregory Erickson, former graduate student of Curator of Paleontology and Regents Professor of Paleontology Jack Horner at MSU’s Museum of the Rockies. Erickson is now in the Department of Biological Science at Florida State University.

“Conferences are great for listening to scientific talks, but a lot of what happens is making contact with people,” Varricchio said.

Xu said, “David is the authority on dinosaur reproduction, and he contributed the reproduction section of our review paper, and of course, he also made valuable comments on other sections.”

The newly published paper said that recent discoveries of spectacular dinosaur fossils in China and elsewhere overwhelmingly support the hypothesis that birds are descended from theropod dinosaurs and “more important, demonstrate that distinctive bird characteristics such as feathers, flight, endothermic physiology, unique strategies for reproduction and growth, and a novel pulmonary system originated among Mesozoic terrestrial dinosaurs.”

Endothermic refers to warm-bloodedness. The novel pulmonary system is a complex respiratory system that involves air being shifted from air sacs to and from the lungs.

“The transition from ground-living to flight-capable theropod dinosaurs now probably represents one of the best-documented major evolutionary transitions in life history,” the paper continued.

The paleontologists said the origin of birds has been an enduring and dramatic debate. The theory has been that birds developed from a group of dinosaurs, but several issues remained unsolved until the recent discoveries of numerous well-preserved feathered dinosaur fossils from Jurassic and Cretaceous sediments. The fossils showed a wide variety of feathers that demonstrated a trend toward increasing complexity.

Paleontologists, as well as scientists specializing in other disciplines, were responsible for the new insights, the paper said. In the same way, experts in a variety of disciplines will be needed to move forward, but fossils will always be important.

“Any historical reconstruction must ultimately be tested using the fossil record,” the paper said. “Consequently, dense fossil sampling along the line to modern birds and better understanding of transitional forms play key roles in such construction.”

Varricchio’s contribution to the paper shows that many reproductive features associated with modern birds first evolved among carnivorous dinosaurs, particularly those close to the ancestry of birds.

Varricchio was the only U.S. speaker at the International Symposium on Asian Dinosaurs where he and Xu began the collaboration that led to their Science paper. So far in his career, Varricchio has discovered and analyzed dinosaur fossils from Montana to China. In 2009, he received a $590,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. The five-year award is the NSF’s most prestigious award for supporting the early career development of teacher-scholars.

Another NSF grant allowed Varricchio to lead college students from around Montana to China for paleontology research. Varricchio’s work in southwest Montana and Idaho led to a new exhibit on burrowing dinosaurs that recently opened at MSU’s Museum of the Rockies. Varricchio previously spent time in the Fukui area of Japan when he was on sabbatical for three months during 2013-14.

The city of Fukui, which means “fortunate” in Japanese, is located about 19 miles west of the city that houses the Museum of the Rockies’ first sister museum in Japan. The Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum is located in Katsuyama. The Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum and the Fukui Prefectural University supported Varricchio during his sabbatical visit and also hosted the symposium where he and Xu spoke.

Xu has been praised for revolutionizing ideas about the development of dinosaurs and for helping make China into a paleontological powerhouse. Called the “go-to man in China for anything people want to know about dinosaurs,” the professor in the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing is also known for naming the most new varieties of dinosaurs among active paleontologists. Xu said he has named more than 50 species so far.

Science is one of the top scientific journals in the world. It is published weekly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu