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Scientists say Tyrannosaurus rex, fryer chickens have connections

POSTED: May 6, 2008 5:00 a.m.

If things had only worked out a little differently, perhaps Gainesville would have been the dinosaur capital of the world. Turns out that chicken you had for lunch or dinner may have come from a direct descendant of giant creatures that once roamed the earth.

The truth is, take away the feathers and you can see how the lowly chicken and the dinosaur bear a striking resemblance.

Scientists are fleshing out the proof that today’s broiler-fryer is descended from the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex.

And, not a surprise, they confirmed a close relationship between mastodons and elephants.

The city’s football team, the Red Elephants, could have been playing at Jurassic Park, rather than City Park.

Fossil studies have long suggested modern birds were descended from T. rex, based on similarities in their skeletons.

Now, bits of protein obtained from connective tissues in a T. rex fossil show a relationship to birds, including chickens and ostriches, according to a report in today’s edition of the journal Science.

"These results match predictions made from skeletal anatomy, providing the first molecular evidence for the evolutionary relationships of a nonavian dinosaur," Chris Organ, a postdoctoral researcher in biology at Harvard University said in a statement.

Co-author John M. Asara of Harvard reported last year that his team had been able to extract collagen from a
T. rex and that it most closely resembled the collagen of chickens.

Abit Massey, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation in Gainesville, took the news of the broiler-dinosaur connection in stride.

"That’s all good," Massey said. "But does dinosaur taste like chicken?"

His associate, Mike Giles, had his own take on the genetic connection.

"Now we finally know why the chicken crossed the road ... to keep from becoming extinct," Giles said.

Mike Lacy, a poultry science professor at the University of Georgia, said the news of the chicken’s ancestry is not that new.

"Birds are living dinosaurs, which means that chickens are dinosaurs," Lacy said. "They are the only surviving dinosaurs."

Lacy has seen chickens that were featherless, because of a genetic defect.

"You see those things running around on the floor and they look like those little velociraptors that were in ‘Jurassic Park,’" he said. "It’s obvious that they are dinosaurs."

Lacy said when he has visited museums and looked at the skeletal remains of dinosaurs, he sees the connection to poultry.

While the researchers were able to obtain just a few proteins from T. rex, they have now been able to show the relationships with birds.

With more data, Organ said, they would probably be able to place T. rex on the evolutionary tree between alligators and chickens and ostriches.

"We also show that it groups better with birds than modern reptiles, such as alligators and green anole lizards," Asara added.

The dinosaur protein was obtained a fossil found in 2003 by John Horner of the Museum of the Rockies in a barren, fossil-rich stretch of land that spans Wyoming and Montana. Mary H. Schweitzer of North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences discovered soft-tissue preservation in the T. rex bone in 2005.

The research of Organ and Asara indicates that the protein from the fossilized tissue is authentic, rather than contamination from a living species.

Asked if the additional connection to T. rex could mean the laboratories at the University of Georgia might one day produce Georgia’s really big chicken, Lacy said he hadn’t given that much thought, but then conceded that his bosses at the college might not be warm to the idea of creating a Jurassic Park in Athens.

But the Georgia professor tackled one question not covered in the research report: Which came first, the chicken or the dinosaur?

"The dinosaur," Lacy said.

The researchers also studied material recovered from a mastodon fossil and determined it was related to modern elephants.

Their research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Paul F. Glenn Foundation and the David and Lucille Packard Foundation.

Meanwhile, in another paper in Science, researchers report refining a method to determine ancient dates that will allow them to better pinpoint events such as dinosaurs’ extinction.

A team led by Paul Renne, director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center and an adjunct professor of earth and planetary science at the University of California, Berkeley, said they were able to refine the so-called argon-argon dating method to reduce uncertainty. The method compares the ratio or two types of the element argon found in rocks.

The greater precision matters little for recent events in the last few million years, according to Renne, but it can be a major problem for events in the early solar system. For example, a 1 percent difference at 4.5 billion years is almost 50 million years.

The new system reduces that potential uncertainty to one-fourth of one percent, the researchers said.



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