International Symposium on Origin of Birds Honors John Ostrom; "China's Feathered Dinosaur" Topic of Peabody Museum Exhibit

John Ostrom, the Yale paleontologist who helped give wing to the theory that birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs, will be honored at an international symposium titled "New Perspectives on the Origin and Early Evolution of Birds" on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 13-14, in New Haven.

John Ostrom, the Yale paleontologist who helped give wing to the theory that birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs, will be honored at an international symposium titled “New Perspectives on the Origin and Early Evolution of Birds” on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 13-14, in New Haven.

The symposium coincides with the opening Feb. 13 of an exhibit at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, 170 Whitney Ave., titled “China’s Feathered Dinosaurs,” featuring fossil specimens of rare “feathered” dinosaurs that were discovered in China in 1996. That weekend, the museum also will host a gala benefit titled “A Night on the Yangtze.”

When the feathered dinosaur fossils in the newest Peabody exhibit were first unearthed in China, Ostrom referred to the discovery as “the biggest event in evolutionary science since Darwin put forth his theory.” An international array of scientists will converge at New Haven’s Omni Hotel Feb. 13-14 at a symposium designed to place this discovery within the context of current paleontological and evolutionary research.

The symposium also will pay tribute to Ostrom, whose pioneering work with such dinosaur fossils as Deinonychus, Compsognathus and Archaeopteryx led him to revive 18th-century naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley’s theory that birds are descended from dinosaurs. Ostrom’s research on the link between birds and theropod dinosaurs has been a central theme in the modern debate about evolutionary history.

Yale faculty member Jacques Gauthier will serve as the host of the symposium, which will feature researchers from across the United States, as well as from China, Germany and the United Kingdom. Gauthier, who is also curator-in-charge of the new exhibit, is professor of geology and geophsyics and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Peabody. Preregistration is required. For further information and registration materials, call 432-9855.

“China’s Feathered Dinosaurs” Exhibit

The Peabody exhibit will mark the first time that these fossil treasures, which are on special loan from the Chinese government, will be on display in the northeastern United States. The exhibit was organized by The National Geographic Society and is sponsored by United Technologies. It will continue through Sunday, May 9.

The exhibit features seven specimens of four new dinosaur species spanning a critical period in the evolution of flight in dinosaurs: an adult and baby Sinosauropteryx, two specimens of Caudipteryx, a Protoarchaeopteryx and a pair of Confuciusornis. The specimens were discovered in 120-million-year-old rock layers from an early Cretaceous lake bed in Liaoning Province in northeastern China – a site that had already yielded thousands of fossilized leaves, insects, fish, frogs, crocodiles, salamanders, turtles, lizards and mammals.

The specimens were preserved in an “avian” death pose, with numerous traces of fossilized soft tissues, including stomach contents and gravel-filled gizzards. Each bears the fossilized remains of feather-like coverings. The body of Sinosauropteryx is covered with “protofeathers,” a dense covering of fine, hollow filaments that are forcing scientists to reevaluate their ideas about feather evolution.

For example, scientists now believe that feathers evolved to hold in body heat long before they were used for flight. The feathers on the hands and tail tips of Caudipteryx and Protoachaeopteryx are even more bird-like. Scientists have suggested that these feathers could have played a courtship role, as they do in modern birds, but may also have played an important role in enhancing maneuverability and stability in the two-legged dinosaurs.

Although all of the dinosaurs on exhibit were feathered, only one – Confuciusornis – could actually fly. Like earlier dinosaurs, Sinosauropteryx had very short arms without the enlarged feathers needed for flight. While the arms of Caudipteryx and rotoarchaeopteryx were longer and had larger feathers, the appendages were not developed enough to support the creatures’ weight in flight. Nevertheless, scientists believe that the latter two used their long arms and sharply clawed hands to capture their prey using a motion similar to that used by modern birds when they’re flying – leading many researchers to believe that the flight stroke evolved before flight did.

“A Night on the Yangtze”

The sound of flowing water will compete with the music of Tuxedo Junction and the Burning Bush Baroque at “A Night on the Yangtze,” a gala to benefit the Peabody’s Vertebrate Paleontology Collection. The event will be held at 7 p.m. on Feb. 12 at the museum.

The liquid serenade will be provided by the water gardens that will be installed at the Peabody Museum for the evening by Rob Dietter. Also highlighting the event will be food and drink by the Dragon Club. Guests at the event, which celebrates the opening of the exhibit “China’s Feathered Dinosaurs,” are invited to dress up in their own feathered finery, as well as Chinese costume or dinosaur-hunting attire, and also are free to “come as themselves.”

Tickets are $85 per person ($35 of which is tax-deductible) for members of the Peabody Museum Associates and $105 per person ($55 tax deductible) for non-members and their guests. Patron tickets at $150 per person ($80 tax deductible) and Benefactor tickets at $250 per person ($180 tax deductible) include admission to a champagne preview party at 5:30 p.m. in honor of Professor John Ostrom. Among the special guests at the preview party will be Ji Qiang and Ji Shu’an of the National Geological Museum in Beijing.

For information about purchasing tickets, call 432-9855.

The Peabody Museum of Natural History is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. on Sunday. For information on admission, events and parking, call 432-5050 or visit the museum’s website at

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