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For years, it has been believed that Dinosaurs are ancestors of modern day birds. By simply looking at pictures of dinosaurs, one can find many physical similarities between these reptiles and modern day birds. Often the legs and the chest cavities are very similar in shape. Some dinosaurs have limbs that look like they could evolve into modern day wings, some dinosaurs even had feathers (6). A recent discovery in Italy of an extremely well preserved Scipionyx samniticus challenges this idea. The skeleton of this small Therapod was nearly complete, but more impressively, there was still remnants of soft tissue. Portions of the Trachea, the liver, the skeletal muscle, and the intestines were still preserved (1).
Scipionyx is a small meat-eating dinosaur that lived in the early Cretaceous. It has sharp teeth and claws, with powerful hind legs. The fourth maxillary tooth is longer than the rest almost giving the Scipionyx a vampire-like look. It has a long tail that aided in its balance, very large eyes and was most likely a small, yet quick hunter (3). It lived in what is now Italy. The skeleton that was found was a nine inch newborn, but some scientists think that a full grown Scipionyx can reach up to ten feet in length (3). The Scipionyx also possess an enormous hand which is common to the maniraptors (3). This group includes dinosaurs like the velociraptor.
The Scipionyx was so well preserved in limestone, that using an ultra-violet light, one could get almost an X-ray of the baby Therapod (5). The internal organs of this dinosaur are somewhat similar to that of a crocodile. For example, the Trachea is well situated in the vertebral column (1). In birds, the Tracheas is usually adjacent to the vertebral column. Similarly to the crocodile, the Scipionyx’s liver is placed ahead of the large intestine (1). The Scipionyx has small groups of muscle fibers that seem to be diaphragmatic musculature (1). Again, these are similar to that of modern day crocodiles. The diaphragmatic musculature aides in diaphragm assisted breathing, which allows modern-day crocodiles to have burst-like movements (1). These traits are not consistent with an avian style, air sac component which is typical of birds (1). The diaphragm was shown to divide the body into two parts. One part contained the heart and the lungs, the other had the intestines, and the entrails (2).
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This anatomical makeup is suited for eco-therm type habits (1). That is, lying dormant, but when needed to, quickly being able to pump air into lungs and exert as much energy as needed. The environment the Scipionyx lived in supports this, for it had many shallow lagoons that often lacked plentiful oxygen (7). Therefore, the Scipionyx being able to be efficient with it’s oxygen intake would be a significant agent to it’s survival. This might be seen as an evolutionary advantage for dinosaurs, for they could be able to be efficient with energy when not much was needed, but be able to rapidly use it when it was necessary to do so (2).
Although Scipionyx, provides ample evidence that there is not a dinosaur to bird link, dinosaurs like Caudipteryx argue the contrary. This dinosaur found in north-eastern China, show imprints of feathers on the tail and the for-limbs, that many theorize it had inherited from a dinosaurian common ancestor it shared with birds (6). The Caudipteryx lacked a full set of wings and was therefore earth-bound. There were three Caudipteryx found around this region in China. It was the third fossil, however, that was the best preserved (6). Although, this fossil shows a number of bird-like characteristics that are not present in dinosaurs, there are about 16 dinosaur characteristics that it does have (6). Many supporters of the dinosaur-to-bird theory state that it is only a matter of time before there is a missing link found.
This is a large debate in the field of paleontology. However, it is one that I feel will be resolved with more discoveries like the Caudipteryx and the Scipionyx. Each of the fossils provided opposing views, though they both had flaws. The Scipionyx for example had a waist much like that of a bird. Caudipteryx’s feathers, one scientist notes, was merely fuzz, and not bird-like enough. Over time, this question will be answered, and many more concerning dinosaurs.
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2. CNN. (1999, January 22). Study says dinosaurs’ organs allowed fast aggressive moves.
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3. Dino-Land. (1997). Scipionyx. Retrieved April 4th, 2004 from Dinoland Web site.
4. Scipionyx samniticus: Life and Death. Retrieved April 4th, 2004.
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6. Normille, Dennis. (2000, June 9th). New Feathered Dino Firms up Bird Links. Science, 288, 5472.
7. Dinosaur Mailing List. (April 27th, 1999). Skippy the Dinosaur. Retrieved April 4th, 2004 from Dinosaur Mailing List. http://www.dinosauria.com/jdp/misc/scipionyx.html