CASPER, Wyo. — A small dinosaur discovered near Douglas in 2001 could help scientists more closely pin down the origin of flight in birds and understand how dinosaurs evolved into today's birds, according to a study published this week.
The dinosaur, Hesperornithoides miessleri — colloquially known as “Lori”— is the smallest dinosaur yet found in Wyoming, which has been well-known since before it gained statehood for its paleontological discoveries. The study, published in a peer-reviewed open-source journal by a team of researchers from Wisconsin, Washington state, the United Kingdom and Thermopolis, states discovery of the dinosaur may deeply impact scientists' understanding of birds' development of flight.
In a statement issued by the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, the Thermopolis nonprofit said the dinosaur will go on display at an exhibit in its museum beginning Friday. Paleontologists dug up the dinosaur in summer 2001 in the Morrison Formation, which is between 155 and 140 million years old and located outside of what is now Douglas.
In the statement, scientists characterized Lori as a "pocket-sized version" of the velociraptor, a turkey-sized dinosaur known for its sharp claws and carnivorous nature. Velociraptor are inaccurately depicted in the movie "Jurassic Park" as towering over humans.
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Lori's discovery means scientists will be better able to understand the evolution of birds, to whom the dinosaur is closely related.
“We found that Lori is a primitive member of the group of dinosaurs that includes Troodon” said Scott Hartman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin and member of the research team. “The smaller details of the family tree of bird-like dinosaurs aren’t quite as resolved as some researchers would claim. Within the group of winged, but non-flying, dinosaurs, we need more testing to hash out the inter-relationships.”
However, a paleontologist uninvolved in the research told National Geographic in an article published earlier this week that the paper's indications that the dinosaur may rework our understanding of bird evolution is still speculative and likely won't be firmed up until more fossils are discovered and examined.
“It’s a cool specimen for sure and adds to the very fragmentary number of [dinosaurs closely related to birds] known from this time,” says Jingmai O’Connor, a paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. “It’s pretty clear that flight evolved in dinosaurs more than once, and this new dataset supports that.”