Fossils and Feathers

See how paleontologists have made the connection between theropods and modern birds.
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Authoring Scientists

Mark Norell
Dr. Norell is the Chairman of the Museum's Division of Paleontology.

About the Course

Did dinosaurs really go extinct 65 million years ago? Overwhelming evidence suggests that one branch of the dinosaur family tree managed to survive, and that we see living dinosaurs every day. We call them birds. In this course, equipped with paleontologists' tools and techniques, you'll study the theropod group of dinosaurs (Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor belonged to it) and determine which are most closely related to modern birds. You'll also look at how fossils are collected and prepared, and investigate how scientists uncover the evolutionary relationships between species. Read more.

Key Science Concepts

Overwhelming evidence indicates that birds are a group of dinosaurs (avian theropod dinosaurs) that escaped the massive extinction 65 million years ago.

Birds share many anatomical characteristics with their extinct relatives. Many characteristics present in their theropod ancestors were modified to enable birds to fly.

Cladistics is a method of classifying living things that reflects evolutionary relationships. It uses shared derived characteristics—features that evolve for the first time and are passed on to all the organisms' descendents—to establish relationships.

Paleontology calls on a mix of skills that range from collecting and preparing fossils to analyzing them in a laboratory.

Behaviors shared by birds and crocodiles (dinosaurs' closest living relatives), such as nesting and caring for young, were probably also engaged in by extinct dinosaurs. The fossil record supports some of these claims.

Oxygen isotope data and the existence of feathered dinosaurs suggest that at least some non-avian dinosaurs were warm-blooded. (Since feathers predate birds, they must have had a function other than flight.)

Intense volcanism and a meteor impact are two of the leading explanations for the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Course Textbook

The Mistaken Extinction: Dinosaur Evolution and the Origin of Birds
Author: Lowell Dingus and Timothy Rowe
Publisher: W. H. Freeman
Edition: October 1997
Hardcover: 384 pages
ISBN: 071672944X
Buy online: Amazon

Graduate Credit

This course is approved for graduate credit and continuing education units from leading institutions at an additional cost. Read more.

Adams State UniversityCity University of New YorkFramingham State UniversityHamline UniversityNorthwest Missouri State UniversityWestern Governors University

Related Courses

Interested in more from Seminars on Science? Consider these related offerings:

Modern Evolutionary Biology
The Diversity of Fishes
Classification, Anatomy and Morphology
Sharks and Rays
Ecology, Classification and Evolution

Course Preview

Explore an interactive comparing theropods and modern birds, watch a video of fossil prepration, and explore a sample discussion.

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