Dig into the evolutionary history of birds

25th July 2003 at 01:00
DINO-BIRDS: Feathered Fossils from China. until September 7. Royal Museum, Chambers Street, Edinburgh tel 0131 225 7534 www.nms.ac.ukdinobirds

The Dino-Birds exhibition at the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, which showcases the missing link between dinosaurs and birds for only the second time outside China, is about the evolution of birds rather than a history of dinosaurs.

Dino-birds are small feathered dinosaurs. Farmers in Liaoning province in north-east China began uncovering fossils of ancient birds less than 10 years ago. Scientists now claim that the discovery of these 124 million-year-old fossils proves that the birds we see around us today are, indeed, descended from dinosaurs.

It is a theory that the scientific community had been arguing about since 1861, when a discovery was made by a worker at a limestone quarry in Bavaria. His find was a 147 million-year-old fossil of the world's most primitive bird, an Archaeopteryx (ancient wing). It had the feathers of a bird but the body of a dinosaur, with teeth and clawed digits.

Six similar discoveries were made in the same area over the course of the next 90 years. But it was not until 2000 that farmers in Liaoning uncovered the fossil nicknamed Fuzzy Raptor, which proved to be the missing link between dinosaurs and birds.

Visitors can see the Fuzzy Raptor and a dozen of the most significant dino-bird finds, which range from the size of a sparrow to a turkey or swan. These are displayed alongside the Archaeopteryx and some other exquisite fossils from the dino-birds discovery site. One find, in particular, features a fish, a lizard, mayfly larvae and a grasshopper wing case on the same piece of stone, giving a snapshot of the wildlife in Liaoning province in ancient times.

Although Dino-Birds is a serious exhibition, it is neither solemn nor dull.

The story it has to tell is enlivened with imaginative use of film, showing modern birds in slow motion flight and going about their daily business which, in one gruesome clip, includes dragging a chick from its underground nest and eating it.

You can watch excerpts from a BBC Horizon programme on dino-birds and learn how some Chinese farmers earn a living from harvesting fossils as a cash crop. You can also find out who invented the term dinosaur (it means terrible lizard), why the Bavarian quarry worker gave Archaeopteryx to a doctor and why he then sold it to the Natural History Museum in London.

Very young children may not find the fossils too interesting but the picture books, cuddly dinosaurs and other toys in the reading and play areas should keep them entertained.

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