Dinosaur Feather Story Gets Hairy
Another “feathered dinosaur” story has caused a flap and flurry of news reports. But are they really feathers, and do they help evolutionary theory?
An exceptionally preserved juvenile in typical “dinosaur death pose” was unearthed in German limestone and given the name Sciurumimus (“squirrel-mimic”). Labelled Jurassic by the researchers who announced the discovery in PNAS,1 this is the first non-coelurosaur species described with integumentary structures. It is leading some to postulate that all the branches of dinosaurs had “feathers,” as stated in National Geographic‘s article: “‘Probably all dinosaurs were feathered,’ scientist concludes.”
One will look in vain, though, for veined feathers with barbs and barbules as found in birds. The authors label the structures “type 1 feathers,” meaning single filaments protruding from the skin (see 9/15/2011 entry). They are actually little more than fuzz, barely noticeable in the photos. Co-author Helmut Tischlinger said, “Under ultraviolet light, remains of the skin and feathers show up as luminous patches around the skeleton.” Some, like Brian Switek at Nature News, dub them “protofeathers.” He wrote,
Palaeontologist Paul Barrett of London’s Natural History Museum agrees that the structures on Sciurumimus are probably protofeathers. Although additional geochemical work is needed to study the features’ details, Barrett says, the fossilized wisps are very similar to the fuzz seen on other dinosaurs. But he notes that the presence of these filaments among all dinosaurs is “speculation”. Feathery structures might be a common feature of dinosaurs, but it’s also possible that they evolved multiple times. “We need more examples in both non-coelurosaurian theropods, and particularly in the other big dinosaur groups, before we can really speculate that these features are a character of dinosaurs as a whole,” Barrett says.
Reporters seem unsure what to make of the news. Co-author Mark Norell said, according to Science Daily, “This is a surprising find,” noting that it appeared in the same limestone in northern Bavaria as Archaeopteryx (discovered 150 years ago), that was fully fledged with flight feathers: meaning, at the very least, that this creature and birds with powered flight were contemporaries. Clearly whatever the fuzz was on this creature, it had nothing to do with flight. Though the juvenile in the fossil was only 28″ long, “Adult megalosaurs reached about 20 feet in length and often weighed more than a ton,” Science Daily reported. “They were active predators, which probably also hunted other large dinosaurs.” Not even believers in dinosaur-to-bird evolution think this creature was closely related to birds.
Of note is that this fossil came from a private collector and looks, at first glance, almost too good to be true. Assuming it is authentic and trustworthy, though, paleontologists have their work cut out for them. “Although the feathers look similar among different dinosaur groups, it’s still possible the trait evolved independently, without a common ancestor,” National Geographic suggested (look for phrase “repeated evolution” in the 7/01/2012 entry). Everyone seems to agree there’s not enough information to make sweeping conclusions. NG reporter Christine Dell’Amore quoted Corwin Sullivan saying, “We paleontologists are going to need to find more fossils—of things even less closely related to birds than Sciurumimus—to be sure.”
Moreover, the discovery “upends [the] feather theory,” National Geographic headlined, and also upends the portrayal of dinosaurs as “overgrown lizards.” Switek remarked, “If so, we will have to start thinking about what kind of feathery covering these creatures display when we depict them in art and film.”
1. Rauhut, Foth, Tischlinger and Norell, “Exceptionally preserved juvenile megalosauroid theropod dinosaur with filamentous integument from the Late Jurassic of Germany,” PNAS, published online July 2, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1203238109.
You have type 1 protofeathers, too. They’re called hairs. Imagine finding a fossil skeleton of a horse so well preserved, impressions of its mane and tail were clearly seen in the rock (but strangely, none of the internal organs). Would you be justified in saying that horses were evolving flight? Horsefeathers. Would it make any sense to say that the trait originated further back than expected, implying that the common ancestor of birds and Pegasus had protofeathers? If you didn’t already “know” the evolutionary story about how mammals, dinosaurs and birds are supposed to have evolved, it would be a similar inferential fallacy.
There’s still something very weird about these “feathered dinosaur” discoveries. They are found in Germany or China, often involve the same fossil-hunters, and often come from private collectors.
Even giving the evolutionists the maximum credibility about the authenticity of the fossils, they still usually create problems for Darwin. They don’t show a clear path from fuzz to flight. The “protofeathers” are on the wrong animals. They have an unknown function. Their dates overlap, or belong in the wrong eras. They don’t show a progression in complexity over time till true powered flight is thought to have evolved. They are either simple protrusions, or complex feathers found on animals that clearly used them for flying or gliding (or perhaps were secondarily flightless, see 5/01/2010). Given how quickly animals equipped for flight could conquer the globe, one would expect to find them everywhere (compare pterosaurs, flying insects, bats). Informed skepticism is still in order.
Another lesson is how readers can be distracted by the wrong questions. Stop listening to the evolution tales, and ask other questions: Why are dinosaurs so often found in the typical death pose, suggesting rapid suffocation in water (11/23/2011)? Why are they exquisitely preserved? Why do so few reporters fail to question the dates and stories of the Darwinists? Why don’t they focus, instead, on the high levels of complexity required to have an animal run, hunt, fly, or live at all?
Exercise: Based on observations of the fossils alone, undistracted by evolutionary assumptions, list other questions the evolutionists and their lackey reporters never ask.