February 8, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Imaginary Feathers Found on Dinosaur

The science news outlets are all talking about a new dinosaur with feathers, but where are the feathers?  Bjorn Carey at LiveScience said that Guanlong wucaii were “likely covered in feathers” and MSNBC said it was “likely feathered as a chicken.”  John Roach on National Geographic News even went so far as to say, “Scientists say the 160-million-year-old animal, which had simple feathers and an elaborate head crest, is the oldest known tyrannosaur” (emphasis added in all quotes).
    We went to the source looking for the feathers.  The original paper by Xu et al. in Nature1 says nothing about feathers.  Neither does the news story about it by Thomas R. Holtz in the same issue of Nature.2  Holtz does mention “feathered dinosaurs” from China, lists “feathered maniraptorans” in passing, and refers to an earlier discovery, Dilong paradoxus, that had some kind of coating that he calls “simple fuzzy ‘protofeathers’” in quote marks.  Still no conclusive feathers for Guanlong.  The plot thickens in The Case of the Missing Feathers.
    The first solution to this mystery is to go back to an Oct. 6, 2004 story in National Geographic about D. paradoxus.  This mentions a “at least a partial coat of hairlike feathers” on this small tyrannosaurid, but the description of the feathers is not what most of us picture when we think of a bird feather.  These are called “featherlike structures” that apparently were for warmth or insulation, not flight.3  Since Sinosauropteryx had these “featherlike structures”, the discoverer assumed that this new fossil, along with birds, were “all expressions of the same evolutionary change.”  Holtz said, “then we have to infer that tyrannosaurids also had some expression of the same trait [feathers].”  Yet even these structures on D. paradoxus seem questionable.  The article goes on: “The description of Dilong paradoxus is based on the fossils of four specimens, including a fragmented one with evidence of protofeathers—precursors to the feathers found on modern birds.”  Then the article speculates on whether T. rex youngsters sported the downy coats, without mentioning any fossil evidence for such a claim.
    Back to Guanlong wucaii.  Now we have the context for the claims about feathers in the science news articles, despite the absence of the word in the scientific paper.  The end of the MSNBC article quotes Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History, one of the co-discoverers of both fossils, who made a big point about the “featherlike structures” on the earlier find.  After referring back to Dilong paradoxus, he explains about the new fossil: “Because they’re so closely related [sic], there’s no reason at all to think it didn’t have feathers.”  (His museum is the same one with an exhibit that boldly announces to the public, “Birds Are Dinosaurs.”)

1Xu et al., “A basal tyrannosauroid dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of China,” Nature 439, 715-718 (9 February 2006) | doi:10.1038/nature04511.
2Thomas R. Holtz Jr., “Palaeontology: A Jurassic tyrant is crowned,” Nature 439, 665-666 (9 February 2006) | doi:10.1038/439665a.
3See Jonathan Sarfati’s analysis on AIG #1 and AIG #2.  The fossil impressions could be from flayed collagen fibers, not feathers.

This is very strange.  Only one specimen of the earlier fossil, a fragmented specimen, had some kind of hairy skin filaments, that were not feathers, but “protofeathers” or “featherlike structures.”  Then the new fossil has none at all.  One team member leaps from fragmentary evidence to pure imagination in a single bound, assuming evolution relates these two dinosaurs to birds according to a common evolutionary innovation.  From there, the news media print color drawings of Gualong coated in colorful plumage, with the word FEATHERS in bold type in the headlines.  What is going on here?  Why are they doing this to us?
    Horsefeathers.  They should know better.  We are onto their tricks.  They are mixing and matching fragments of flimsy evidence to fit a preconceived speculation and market it as fact.  For earlier and similar claims, see 05/06/2004 on the questionable museum exhibit, 06/18/2001 on a New Mexico tale, and 08/21/2001 and 10/30/2002 on problems with feather evolution.  Mark Robertson on AIG called for more skepticism over the weak claims, and AIG has many other articles on dinosaurs and birds.

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Categories: Dinosaurs, Dumb Ideas, Fossils

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