Feathered reptile fossil stirs evolution debate

A new find in a remote part of southwestern Asia – bankrolled by Kansas dinosaur hunters – is adding fuel to a controversy sparked by a Kansas University paleontologist.

Last month Larry Martin, professor and senior curator at KU’s Natural History Museum, received an e-mail from a Russian scientist who found a fossil of a reptile that appears to have had feathers.

The reptile is as old as the oldest dinosaur (about 220 million years), and because of the feathers it may have been able to fly or glide.

“This rains on a lot of people’s parades,” Martin said with a chuckle recently, as he reread the e-mail on his office computer in the museum’s basement.

The e-mail was sent by Evgeny N. Kurochkin, of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Paleontologic Institute. Kurochkin led a team of researchers who traveled to Kirgizistan in southwestern Asia in search of fossils.

Kansas University graduate student Robert Elder holds a model of a longisquama, a feathered reptile that may predate dinosaurs. David Burnham, left, and Larry Martin, curator of vertebrate paleontology, look on. The model is part of a future display about the birth of flight.

Martin and Kurochkin have known each other for years, and they organized the search team. The excursion into the remote and rugged terrain in the former Soviet republic was financed by Kansas dinosaur and fossil hunters, brothers Alan and Robert Detrich.

The excursion by Kurochkin to Kirgizistan was well worth it because of the scientific information he brought back, said Alan Detrich, former Great Bend resident now living in Lawrence, who has retired from a career of hunting dinosaur fossils. His brother has since taken over the Detrich Fossil Co. in Great Bend.

“We’re just delighted that more scientific information came out of such a difficult, remote area,” Detrich said. “That’s a dangerous area to have to go to.”

The recently found fossil appears to be feathers from a bird reptile called longisquama and similar to a fossil of longisquama feathers studied by Martin, Kurochkin and others a few years ago. The earlier fossil also was found in Kirgizistan in 1969 by a Russian scientist named A.G. Sharnov. Martin first saw the fossil in 1998 when it was on display in a Kansas City area shopping mall.

Then, five years ago, Martin, Kurochkin and a few other researchers stirred up the world of paleontology by publishing an article in a science journal that challenged a long-held theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Luck helps

Incredibly, Kurochkin’s team was able to locate the same site in Kirgizistan where Sharnov found his fossil. That’s because Kurochkin found and recruited a Russian scientist in Germany who had accompanied Sharnov on the 1969 trip.

“You couldn’t imagine how lucky you would have to be to find any part of this animal,” Martin said of the longisquama fossil. “Even finding the site was amazing because we thought it had been lost and that they’d be wandering around for days looking for a hole in the ground.”

The fossils are the only ones that exist for a longisquama or its feathers, Martin said.

“The feathers are what everyone is interested in,” Martin said. “We really want to get the skeleton, but certainly getting more feathers is a big deal.”

Martin wants to write an article about the latest findings but first he needs to see photos of what Kurochkin has.

“It sounds like he’s got a (rock) slab that had some feathers on it,” Martin said. “My suspicion, from what he says, is that he has part of another wing.”

Critics still there

In a box in Martin’s office is a scale model of a longisquama. It’s about the length and width of a modern bird, except that it looks like a small reptile with feathers. It was made by Robert Elder, a graduate student under Martin. Elder said he used paper and wire to make the creature.

Elder and Martin will be working with Tom Swearingen, former museum exhibit director, to make the model more lifelike, they said.

When Martin and his cohorts put forth the theory that, at the least, not all birds came after the dinosaur, they were criticized by the paleontologists who remained staunch supporters of the dinosaur-to-bird evolutionary link. The latest findings in Kirgizistan probably won’t resolve the issue, Martin admitted.

“There are people who will quarrel with me up one side and down the other,” he said.