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Deinonychus model

Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Flight

This exhibition closed January 2, 2005




TEACHER'S GUIDE—English / Spanish (in PDF format*)

The recent discovery of spectacular fossils from China provides exciting new evidence concerning the on-going debate about the relationships of dinosaurs and birds and the origin of flight.

The traveling exhibition Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Flight, premiered at the San Diego Natural History Museum on February 7, 2004, and will continue through January 2, 2005. This exhibition is the largest display of significant fossils regarding the origins of birds ever shown outside of the People's Republic of China. The San Diego Natural History Museum is the only U.S. venue to display Feathered Dinosaurs.

Image of dragonfly fossil"The goal of this exhibition is to present new fossil evidence and stimulate both the scientific and the popular understanding of what dinosaurs were like and how they are related to birds," explained Dr. Mick Hager, Executive Director of the San Diego Natural History Museum. "We are delighted to be the premiere venue in the United States to host Feathered Dinosaurs."

Feathered Dinosaurs fossils and sculptures

The fossils displayed in Feathered Dinosaurs are from Liaoning Province in northeastern China, rich in lakebed fossils dating from more than 120 million years ago. From feathered dinosaurs and birds to mummified lizards with color patterns, the fine lake silts of Liaoning have preserved the most delicate of details in the fossils and given researchers a new understanding about prehistoric life. The fossils were found over a period of several years, and have been researched and studied by a joint team of Chinese and American scientists. The study and preparation of the fossils is very time consuming, and many of the fossils in the exhibit are being presented to the public for the first time. The exhibition will travel to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada and be there for seven months starting in the Spring of 2005.

Starting with the early discoveries of dinosaurs, as they were known during the 1800s, Feathered Dinosaurs follows a chronological order to aid in the understanding of how the ever-changing concepts of dinosaur evolution have been formed. This display of some of the most spectacular bird/dinosaur fossils ever discovered serves to illustrate the avian aspect of this history, focusing on the origins of feathers, the beginning of avian flight, the diversity of Mesozoic birds, and secondarily flightless animals.

Feathered Dinosaurs presents extraordinary fossils that are new to science and preserve important anatomical details of bones, teeth, and feathers that have major implications for our understanding of how birds evolved. One remarkable specimen of a long-tailed pterosaur, a flying reptile, is so well preserved as to reveal a previously unknown headcrest, complete with a color pattern and a body covering of "proto-feathers."

Demonstrating that there was a great diversity of Mesozoic birds, there are several types of flying birds in the exhibition, some with toothed jaws and short tails, others with beaked jaws and long tails, some displaying various stages of clawed hands, different carnivorous and herbivorous forms, and most significantly, birds which could fly and some that had lost this ability and became secondarily flightless.

There are also several fossils of small dromaeosaurs ("raptors") preserved with feather impressions which suggest that these supposed non-avian precursors of birds may not represent cursorial dinosaurs as originally proposed, but are actually birds which had the ability to fly.

Sign of pre- and post-ArchaeopteryxAnother specimen appears to represent a "hatchling" of an arboreal species of an ancestral bird that lived before Archaeopteryx. Other kinds of fossils in the exhibition preserve evidence of ancient behaviors, such as parental care as suggested by an adult skeleton discovered lying on an egg-filled "nest."

The fossils are brought to life in a collection of stunning life-size sculptural restorations by the well-known dinosaur sculptor Stephen Czerkas. In addition to the beautiful and realistic sculptures, viewers are aided by a series of huge photo blow-ups that reveal aspects of the fossils, which are not readily visible to the naked eye, including microscopic details, X-rays and ultraviolet illumination.

What You Will See
  • The exhibit includes 34 original fossils, 15 life-size sculptural restorations of the fossils, historical models, and over two dozen large photomurals and graphics.

  • Raptor modelsTwo matching dioramas with life-size, 10-foot-long, Deinonychus, including three of these "raptors" as the traditional scaly versions of dinosaurs, and three completely feathered demonstrating the current view of Deinonychus as being a feathered secondarily flightless bird.

  • Life-size Therizinosaurus, a feathered dinosaur that stands over 13 feet tall and has a wingspan of 20 feet with claws three feet in length.

  • The fossil of the ancestor of Archaeopteryx and birds.

  • The fossils of several examples of flying "four-winged dinosaurs".

  • Sign of development of feathersFossils of pterosaurs, the primitive flying reptiles, including a specimen new to science that is covered with proto-feathers and has a large headcrest preserved with a color pattern.

  • Several fossils that are new to science and are being shown to the public for the first time, including many different kinds of birds. Some of which that have teeth, long tails and clawed fingers and others that are reminiscent of modern birds.

  • A fossil of a flightless dinosaur/bird preserved over its nest of eggs.

**Audio tours available.
Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Flight was organized by the Dinosaur Museum of Blanding, Utah, and the Fossil Administration Office of Liaoning, China in collaboration with the Geological Institute, the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences. All photos copyright of Dinosaur Museum of Blanding, Utah.

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The Museum is grateful for exhibition support from Robinson's May.

Feathered Dinosaurs | Exhibits