Opinions are swirling about an amazing piece of amber with enclosed feathers. Let’s look at what is known so far.
For years we have reported exaggerated claims about feathered dinosaurs, usually fossils with imaginary feathers (e.g., 2/08/2006, 6/13/07, 7/09/08, 3/19/14). Now, there is another case of real feathers on an imaginary dinosaur (7/24/14)—at least, depending on one’s interpretation of what kind of creature bore a feathered tail less than an inch-and-a-half long that got trapped in amber. When the embargo lifted on the open-access paper by Lida Xing et al. in Current Biology, all the news media—as usual—were fully prepared with their flashy headlines and artwork, each absolutely certain this was a 1.3″ tail of a dinosaur that lived 99 million years ago.
- Amber specimen offers rare glimpse of feathered dinosaur tail (Science Daily)
- Feathered Dinosaur Lost Its Tail in Sticky Trap 99 Million Years Ago (Live Science)
- First Dinosaur Tail Found Preserved in Amber (National Geographic)
- ‘Beautiful’ dinosaur tail found preserved in amber (BBC News)
- Feathered dinosaur tail fragment trapped in amber amazes scientists (Fox News)
- T. rex cousin’s 99-million-year old tail feathers found in amber (New Scientist)
The first thing to notice is that they found a tail, not a dinosaur, and only part of a tail at that (8 vertebrae out of suspected 15–25 vertebrae, only 2 of which are clearly delineated). Much of the interpretation, therefore, revolves around what this tail was attached to. The authors suggest that it was a coelurosaur, which evolutionists say are related to theropods. Since T. rex and Velociraptor are classed with theropods, that’s why New Scientist calls the itty bitty critter a “T. rex cousin” despite the monstrous size difference.
The discoverers call it a “a putative juvenile coelurosaur,” putative being essentially synonymous with imaginary. And although they talk much about other feathered dinosaurs, they can’t clearly identify this specimen with any of them: “This suggests either a greater diversity of tail plumage in coelurosaurians than previously suspected or a simplified form of more-derived pennaceous feathers in DIP-V-15103″ [the specimen ID]. Again, “The weakly developed rachis and contiguous barbule branching in DIP-V-15103 represents a novel combination among theropods.” Any one-off specimen is going to raise a lot of questions about what it is they’ve got in their hands.
The feathers, by contrast, are very clear and beautiful, with barbs and barbules. Being symmetric, they were probably not flight feathers—but that’s equivocal for tail feathers. They look more like downy feathers or could have been for decoration. The researchers argue that the vertebrae do not represent part of a pygostyle, a rigid tail as seen in modern birds. In another part of the paper about the feathers, though, the authors note “structural similarities to the distal components of contour feathers in certain Anseriformes,” an order of birds that includes ducks and geese. They continue,
The paired feather arrangement is similar to rectrices in modern birds, suggesting that tracts had become established in basal tail plumage before pygostyle development, with tail plumage becoming more specialized over time. If the entire tail bore plumage similar to that trapped in DIP-V-15103, the feather bearer would likely have been incapable of flight.
Another similarity with modern birds contradicts an evolutionary prediction. “DIP-V-15103 suggests that non-avialan theropods had a greater variety of feather forms than predicted from developmental phenotypes in modern feathers,” they say. Also, “Keratin [protein] sheets are visible within the feather layer, displaying the distinctive, porous, laminar structure also observed in modern avian barbules under SEM,” they say. So what happened over 99 million years? At least some of the soft tissues appear carbonized: i.e., degraded.
Soft tissues—presumably muscles, ligaments, and skin—are visible sporadically through the plumage, clinging to the bones in a manner suggestive of the desiccation common to other vertebrate remains in amber. These tissues have largely been reduced to a carbon film, retaining only traces of their original chemical composition.
One interesting phenomenon comes from the initial reactions of Darwin skeptics. Unexpectedly, it’s the intelligent-design community saying hold your horses (or dinosaurs) while some young-earth creationists are welcoming feathered dinosaurs into God’s creation. An anonymous author at Evolution News & Views (published by the ID think tank Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture) says, “Feathers on a Bird or Dinosaur Tail? The Media Are Certain; the Scientific Evidence Less So.” Taking issue with the extrapolation from 2 visible vertebrae to 25, the author thinks it “still could be a bird.” PhD creationists Todd Wodd (Core Academy of Science) and Marcus Ross (Liberty University), on the other hand, have no problem with feathered dinosaurs and say praise the Lord. On the other hand, Answers in Genesis is initially saying It’s a bird, it’s plain, promising a more detailed analysis on Monday. There’s enough ambiguity in this small but “astonishing fossil” to provoke a variety of strong opinions.
We’ve said before there is no problem with feathers on dinosaurs if the proof is in. The problem has usually been that the hype far exceeds the actual evidence. Evolutionists take any scrap of data they can to feed their dinosaurs-to-birds narrative, even imagining feathers that aren’t there, or transmogrifying birds into transitional forms. Our wait-and-see attitude has served well when confronted with spectacular claims about partial evidence, so we will withhold an opinion till more is known and just call it a “feather bearer” like the authors do. The discoverer, Lida Xing, believes it is possible actual dinosaurs will be found in amber now that the political situation in Myanmar (Burma) is calming down, allowing more access into one of the world’s finest amber deposits. Just for the record, we note that the present fossil was not found in situ, but was bought from a market, and had been modified before Xing et al. got ahold of it, although we do not think it’s a fraud based on the details analyzed in the paper and the other biological specimens, like ants, found inside the amber.
Even if paleontologists prove that dinosaurs have feathers, they’ve got a problem with this fossil and others. The soft tissue and melanosomes being found in these fossils cannot last for a million years, let alone 99 million years. Evolutionists only say they can because they have to. Nobody has experienced a million years. Recorded human history doesn’t go back more than several thousand. Reasonable inferences from known decay rates of proteins, blood vessels and other original soft tissue indicates that dinosaur soft tissue being increasingly reported in the science journals are young. And if they are young, this ceases to be a question of whether dinosaurs ‘evolved’ into birds, and more a question of the amount of diversity in God’s creation before the Flood.