Imaginary Dinosaur Feathers Found Again!
Last year, we reported that imaginary feathers had been found on a dinosaur fossil (see 02/08/2006). Now, more imaginary feathers have turned up. This turkey was big, too: the dinosaur plumed in the imaginary feathers stood almost 12 feet tall. Everyone’s talking about it: Fox News, MSNBC News and Science News among others. National Geographic called it “birdlike” and most of the other articles are fluttering with bird references. But again, we’re confused: where are the feathers?
Despite the artist’s conception of the creature abundantly outfitted with colorful arm plumage, all the articles admit that no feathers were found on the bones of this new giant, Gigantoraptor elrianensis. Instead, they say that the creature “likely” had feathers. They are also calling attention to the beak-like mouth and slender legs of the animal as evidence for ancestry to birds. National Geographic said it resembled a mammoth-sized ostrich. News@Nature said that, though it is “thought” to have had feathers, “There are no clear signs as to whether it was feathered.” The claim is based solely on its supposed affinity with “other dinosaurs known to have been feathered” (but cf. 05/23/2007).
There’s a problem with the story, however. This species, comparable in height to T. rex, is 35 times taller and 300 times heavier than Caudipteryx, a fossil that had distinct feather impressions. “That puts the Gigantoraptor’s existence at odds with prevailing theories that dinosaurs became smaller as they evolved into birds and that bigger dinosaurs had less birdlike characteristics,” the AP report stated.
Tracing the ancestry of birds from dinosaurs just got “more complicated than we imagined.” So said Xu Xing, co-author of a paper that announced the find in Nature.1 “It was an unexpected finding,” Xu said, because paleontologists had expected oviraptors to get smaller and more birdlike over time. Mark Norell, curator of the American Museum of Natural History, said “It’s one of the last groups of dinosaurs that we would expect to be that big.”
What did the original paper in Nature say? It argued that Caudipteryx and Protarcheopteryx (two small, “feathered dinosaurs”) are in the family tree of the giant raptor. But the new fossil complicates the picture of bird evolution, they admitted in the final discussion:
Gigantoraptor is an exception to some general patterns seen during the gigantism of non-avian theropods. Contrary to the evolutionary trend of size decrease in coelurosaurian evolution, which plays a key part in the origin of birds, most non-avian coelurosaurian subgroups display a trend of size increase and their large-sized members tend to reverse to more primitive conditions in many bird-like characters. The discovery of Gigantoraptor complicates this pattern, however. Although much larger than its close relatives, Gigantoraptor has proportionally the longest forelimb among oviraptorosaurs, a manus resembling basal eumaniraptorans, bird-like hind limbs, and many other advanced features. These features are close to the conditions in birds but absent in other smaller oviraptorosaurs, indicating an unusual pattern for the Oviraptorosauria among the non-avian coelurosaurian subgroups.
The feathers on Gigantoraptor, meanwhile, remained imaginary. They said the animal “might have at least retained arm feathers or their homologues from its ancestors, if not other types of feathers, given that the primary function of arm feathers is not to insulate the individual and their development is probably not related to size.” But their reference to the two feathered critters was dated 1998. In 2000, Science News listed among its biggest stories of the year the possibility that Caudipteryx was a flightless bird, not a dinosaur.
These problems, however, are no reason not to celebrate the discovery of imaginary feathers. Fox News and MSNBC both published an AP story about an exhibit on feathered dinosaurs beginning to make the rounds of American museums, starting in Miami. “It tells the story of bird evolution,” chirped a believer. Answers in Genesis, however, voiced a raucous squawk on the whole idea. (See also the 10/10/2005, 10/24/2005 and 10/12/2005 critiques that birds evolved from dinosaurs.)
1Xing Xu et al, “A gigantic bird-like dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of China,” Nature 447, 844-847 (14 June 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature05849.
This is more fodder to store up for the day when the whole Darwinian house of cards collapses. We will need to show students of the future how strong beliefs blinded the eyes of certain scientists and made them imagine a vain thing (see 01/17/2007 commentary).
For a different take on what happened to birds and dinosaurs, consider this other news item. Astrobiology Magazine pondered why so many dinosaur fossils, including all specimens of Archaeopteryx, show the creatures had died with heads tilted backward, apparently gasping in agony. Kevin Padian and Cynthia Fox are not satisfied with the usual explanation that the bones came into this position drifting in water before burial. Padian also noted many of these specimens show evidence of rapid burial because they are exquisitely preserved.
Though Padian and Faux favor the alternative idea that some poison or environmental factor choked the animals, another possibility fits the evidence perfectly well.