July 25, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Featherlike Structures Are Not Feathers

The media have jumped all over a discovery of fuzz on a small ornithischian dinosaur, ignoring the evolutionary problems.

No sooner had we published the previous entry about true feathers on an imaginary dinosaur (7/24/14) when another paper came out in Science Magazine announcing “feathers” on a real dinosaur.  The media spin machine immediately went into high gear:

The discovery of a weird dinosaur, Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, looking something like a cross between a chicken and a fuzzy kangaroo according to the artist’s imagination, was announced in Science Magazine.  The authors, however, preferred the phrase “featherlike structures” instead of feathers throughout the paper.   The only times they spoke of “feathers” per se, they qualified the word as interpretive:

  • Quill-like structures have been reported in the ornithischians Psittacosaurus and Tianyulong, but whether these were true feathers, or some other epidermal appendage, is unclear.
  • Here we report a new ornithischian dinosaur, Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, with diverse epidermal appendages, including grouped filaments that we interpret as avianlike feathers.
  • They more closely resemble the monofilaments in the basal coelurosaur Sinosauropteryx and are similar to morphotype 1 in a recent evolutionary model of feathers.
  • These groups of filaments are similar to feather morphotype 3 and resemble the down feathers of some modern chicken breeds, such as the Silkie, which are devoid of barbules.
  • The presence of both simple and compound filamentous structures in Kulindadromeus (Fig. 4) supports the hypothesis that the integumentary structures in Ornithischia, already described in Psittacosaurus and Tianyulong, could be homologous to the “protofeathers” in non-avian theropods.

These integumentary structures look nothing like bird flight feathers.  They lack a central vane, barbs, barbules and hooks.  They look more like bits of fuzz about 5 to 15 mm long.  Some of the “compound” ones are mere bundles of monofilaments that converge at the base.

The problems for evolution are more serious.  These filaments (not “feathers”) were found on an ornithischian (bird-hipped) dinosaur, rather than the saurischian (lizard-hipped) dinosaurs thought to be ancestral to birds.  In Science Magazine News, Michael Balter untangles the confusion surrounding the names, and points out the phylogenetic problem:

If these bristly structures represented early feathers, as researchers have increasingly come to think, it would mean that feathers evolved in dinosaurs that preceded the evolutionary split between so-called saurischians (which include the meat-eating species) and ornithischians (which comprise plant-eating species) more than 200 million years ago. (Despite their confusing name, the ornithischians are not related to birds, which are saurischians.)

Whatever adorned Kulindadromeus, therefore, had nothing to do with flight feathers.  (The ornithischians include Triceratops, not exactly a frequent flyer by the looks of it.)  Finding fuzz on ornithischians and “coming to think” they represented “early feathers,” therefore, forces evolutionists to imagine that the “featherlike structures” emerged in a common ancestor of both branches, much further back in time than previously thought.  Subsequently, many sub-branches in both groups must have lost the structures, reverting to scales.  It also forces them to imagine feathers having some other function, perhaps mating display or insulation.  The fuzz was “co-opted” for flight millions of years later, in the branches where flight appeared.

In the paper, the authors mention “preservation of the scales as carbonaceous remains” found under “a thin superficial carbonaceous sheet” that was removed to see the structures.  This seems to imply that primordial, unpermineralized material was found in the specimens.  As to their interpretation, even dinobird champion Xing Xu “cautions that the fossils are still too fragmentary to be certain that the more complex feathery structures actually correspond to those found later in birds.”

In their haste to celebrate birds as dinosaurs, though, most of the reporters downplayed these difficulties.  Indeed, some appeared ready to support a remake of Jurassic Park, outfitting all the dinosaurs with colorful feathers, even T. rex.  “Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jurassic Park’ might need a little more revising,” Tanya Lewis said in Live Science; “– a newly discovered dinosaur species offers hints that feathers were much more common among the ancient beasts than once thought.”

There appears to be a clear dividing line at this point between fuzz and true flight feathers.  Evolutionists may call the former “protofeathers” or “featherlike structures” but that doesn’t mean they are feathers or related to feathers.  We think the interpretation of the structures as secondary phenomena resulting from taphonomy (fossilization) should be reconsidered.  In any case, the fuzz on this new creature, if it was functional on the living animal, had nothing to do with the evolution of birds or flight, so it doesn’t support the dino-to-bird story line.  Some reporters need to learn the scientific values of intellectual integrity, epistemic modesty, and interpretive restraint.


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