March 6, 2019 | Jerry Bergman

Why Is China the Leader in Feathered Dinosaur Fossils?


China a Leader in Both New Dinosaur Discoveries and Fraud

by Dr Jerry Bergman

A cover story in a recent Smithsonian Magazine focuses on the modern Chinese boom in dinosaur and other fossil discoveries.[1] Many of the discoveries were made in the Liaoning and nearby provinces in China. Actually, so many finds were made that a new 28 million dollar building is being constructed to display a few of the more valuable fossil discoveries. The building, located in a desolate area 250 miles northeast of Beijing, expects to attract millions of visitors to experience the epicenter of paleontological discoveries that rivals the dinosaur discoveries in the late 19th century American West. Among the early discoveries made in Liaoning include claims of the first “feathered” dinosaur, now named Sinosauropteryx, “the China dragon bird.” The finder sold one half of the fossil to a museum and the other half, a mirror of the first half, to another museum.

Thus began the fossil gold rush that, so far, has yielded what are claimed to be over 40 dinosaur species.[2] Many (but not all) secular scientists consider so-called “feathered dinosaurs” strong evidence of dinosaurs evolving into birds. Clearly defined anatomy-based species categories exist for ‘bird’ and ‘dinosaur,’ but evolution requires some bird-dinosaur transition, and this is where the fossils found in China fit in. [3] Only birds, not mammals or reptiles, have modern flight feathers. Furthermore, with a possible few controversial exceptions, all extinct animals with feathers were birds. Even the proteins in bird feathers, called keratins, are unique. [4]

Not only dinosaur fossils have been found in the Liaoning region, but an entire, well-preserved ancient world, a picture of the world as it existed in the distant past, which was dated in the Darwin timescale at 131 to 120 million years ago. This is an important window when evolutionists believe dinosaurs were evolving into birds; thus, we could expect to find some clear evidence of transitional creatures.[5] The cache of the Liaoning region so far includes 24 winged flying reptiles called pterosaurs, and over 53 ancient bird species, plus flowering plants, spiders, and a variety of crustaceans, insects, snails, clams, and even algae and moss.[6] The area must have at one time been a forest because ferns, pine, cypress, ginkgo and other trees were found there. The fossils found are mostly articulated skeletons located in slabs of stone that have to be split in half or broken open to locate the skeleton. They look like “something had swatted the bird out of the sky and instantly entombed it in rock,” something like a giant flood.[7]

One important result was that no evidence for the theory that dinosaurs evolved into birds was found in the Liaoning Province fossils. This is a problem because in the Liaoning Province birds are found nearby the dinosaurs they supposedly evolved from, yet no transitional fossils which are part dinosaur and part bird have been found to link dinosaurs to birds. One claim was made of such a find which we will discuss. If the evolution of dinosaurs into birds occurred, we would expect that many transitional forms, or at least some, would be discovered among the thousands of fossils found in the Liaoning Province.

Thus, when a transitional form was announced in 1999, it caused worldwide excitement. The transition, called Archaeoraptor, made headlines. The November 1999 National Geographic cover[8] excitedly reported “It’s a Missing Link between terrestrial dinosaurs and birds that could fly.” The full color article added it “is a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds.”[9] Later, an imaging technique called Cross Section Computerized Tomography revealed it to be a sloppy forgery, built from three separate layers. Two (the top and bottom) were constructed from natural material, and one (the middle layer) was human added. The bottom layer was a piece of shale that was used as the backing on which was placed grout to hold the dozens of separate pieces of rock and bone used to construct the now-proven forgery.[10]

Archaeoraptor is evidently only the tip of a large forgery pile. The “flood of ‘improved,’ reconfigured and composite” fossils now in existence is enormous. Many have ended up in the world’s museums, and have caused major problems in Darwinists’ efforts to defend various evolution theories.[11] What some describe as a “flood of sham fossils pouring out of China” has, with good reason, caused no small number of persons to be skeptical of all new fossil finds from China.[12] One report listed 107 journal retractions of research papers by Chinese authors whose research was questionable. [13] In 2003, evolutionary fossil bird expert Alan Feduccia, referring to the famous Archaeoraptor ‘feathered dinosaur’ fossil widely touted by the National Geographic that turned out to be a fake, stated that

Archaeoraptor is just the tip of the iceberg. There are scores of fake fossils out there, and they have cast a dark shadow over the whole field. When you go to these fossil shows, it’s difficult to tell which ones are faked and which ones are not. I have heard that there is a fake-fossil factory in northeastern China, in Liaoning Province, near the deposits where many of these recent alleged feathered dinosaurs were found.[14]

In 2010, paleontologist Jiang Da-yong observed that the “fake fossil problem has become very, very serious” in China. He concluded that “more than 80% of marine reptile specimens now on display in Chinese museums” may be faked or doctored.[15] In a review of his own collection, the curator of paleontology at one major museum “identified a dozen specimens … including a 15-meter-long ichthyosaur that was ‘totally fake.’”[16] The major problem of authentication is a difficult to solve because

High-quality fossil forgeries can fool paleontologists just as easily as forgeries in the art community … Luis Chiappe, an early bird expert at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in California, says that he will “always be skeptical of any specimen that is so neatly arranged, so well preserved in a single slab with little bone missing” [because some have been proven to be forgeries].[17]

The motivation is often money. The Liaoning province economy has significantly benefited from the sale of fossils for the reason that

local farmers—who vastly outnumber paleontologists—have become better and better at finding fossils and working with intermediaries and dealers to create composites that can be sold for higher prices. “We can’t blame the farmers for this … It’s money.” Creating composite fossils has become a small-scale industry in fossil-rich areas of China. “I have personally seen these composite fossils being constructed in workshops or little factories” across several counties in Gansu province, Deng says. “In each workshop, there are bones on shelves like parts in factories.”[18]

Deng adds some paleontologists have concluded that drastic steps are required to stem the flow of forgeries, such as requiring every fossil find being CT scanned before a study of it is published, and

the scans should be included in the [paleontological literature] … such a course has become necessary, at least for high-profile specimens on which major evolutionary claims are being based. “In the case of … Aurornis, CT scanning is essential … Without it, there will always be lingering doubt that the specimen is genuine.”[19]

The difficulties in determining whether or not a fossil is a feathered dinosaur are many.

The Problem of the Evolution of Feathers from Dinosaur Scales.

It should not be difficult to find evidence of flight feathers on fossil impressions if they existed. The use of feathers to achieve flight “affects virtually every aspect of feather design and construction.”[20] A flight feather has a long, slender central shaft called a rachis.  From this extends the barbs, and from these extend the even smaller barbules. The barbules on one side of the barb, although smooth, link like Velcro to tiny hook-shaped barbules on the opposite side.

Assuming feathers on dinosaurs functioned like modern feathers, they must consist of all these required parts. Even the angle, thickness, shape, and construction of the parts must all be within a very narrow set of tolerances.[21] So far, Darwinists have only impressions of proto-feathers that they assume were structures on the way to becoming feathers. Until they are functional feathers, it appears that they would decrease a creature’s fitness, making their owners less likely to survive to produce future generations.[22]

Thomas and Sarfati observed that a few researchers, including some creation paleontologists, accept “feathered” dinosaurs

partly on the basis of detailed secular descriptions. Conversely, some creation scientists with expertise in other disciplines remain unconvinced that those secular descriptions have eliminated enough evolutionary bias to legitimize feathered dinosaurs as a Genesis-friendly category. In addition, secular reports fit the feathered dinosaur candidates into conflicting categories, and include disputes about whether certain fossilized structural remnants really represent feathers. Other intractable barriers against evolution from dinosaur to bird, including centres of mass and respiratory systems, should call into question attempts to conflate the categories. Thus, both creation and anti-creation researchers remain divided over how to categorize feathered dinosaur candidates, and even over the legitimacy of ‘feathered dinosaurs’ as a category.[23]

They add,

Since secularists could more easily construe a feathered dinosaur to fit that third category, biblical scientists should show healthy caution in interpreting feathered dinosaur claims.

Consequently, a creation worldview rejects the supposition that these proto-feathers are structures on the way to evolving into functional flight feathers.”

These proto-feathers could be skin collagen fibers. Some experts interpret the fibers, not as proto-feathers, but as partly decayed integument.[24] Other claimed evidence of fossil feathers resembles fossil preparation marks—not fossils. Most fossils consist of fragmented skeletal parts or only ambiguous impressions in stone.

Creatures where good evidence exists that they possess feather-like structures were likely unusual birds more like today’s ostrich, not dinosaurs. One example is a creature that looks very much like a bird, Microraptor gui of which many dozens of well-preserved specimens have been found. It reminds me very much of the Archaeopteryx fossil. Microraptors did not have proto-feathers, but long pennaceous feathers that formed aerodynamic surfaces on the arms, tail and evidently as on its legs as well, and display what appear to be quill knobs, where bone extends toward flight feathers to provide more muscle attachment for control. This example is not evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but that the ancient world was even more diverse and rich with strange looking species than we previously knew. The issue is classification, and calling something a dinosaur does not make it a dinosaur.

For these and other reasons, even some leading evolutionists have rejected the feathered dinosaur conclusion.[25]  For all these reasons, many researchers are “skeptical of inferring feathers when there are no feathers preserved” in the fossil record that are clearly connected to bona-fide dinosaurs.[26] Lingham-Soliar suggests that because the Sinosauropteryx fossil was found associated with lake biota, Sinosauropteryx was probably semi-aquatic. Filaments extending from the skin mostly resembled smooth downy feathers used in pillows. These structures may have helped waterproof the creature, serving the same function as duck feathers.[27]

Furthermore, no evidence for feather evolution exists. True feathers in the fossil record are consistently fully-formed and functional.[28] Extensive study of one of the oldest known feathers, a 69 millimeter-long, well-preserved example, claimed to be an Archaeopteryx feather, reveals that all its major details closely match those of modern bird feathers.[29] Thus, given this evidence, one would expect to find fully developed feathers on dinosaurs—but not “proto-feathers.”

Ignoring evolutionary wishful thinking, the current evidence suggests that proto-feathers were not structures evolving into feathers, but likely decayed skin, with fossilized collagen fibers remaining. Or they could be forgeries. Further research may challenge the conclusion that feathered dinosaurs don’t exist, but until then we must accept the existing evidence that disputes the feathered dinosaur theory. This conclusion largely takes the wind out of the sails of an evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds and opens up a new area of strange animals that defy classification now like the duck-billed platypus did in its time: namely, the Microraptor family. This is the subject of another paper.

[1][1] Richard Conniff. 2018. The Great Sino Dino Boom. Smithsonian. 49(2): 28-35.

[2] Conniff, 2018, p. 31

[3] Sloan, 1999. 9. 99-103.

[4] Brush, A. 1996, On the Origin of Feathers. Journal of Evolutionary Biology. 9:131-142.

[5] Conniff. 2018, p. 34.

[6] Conniff, 2018, pp. 31-32.

[7] Conniff. 2018. p. 32.

[8] Christopher Sloan. 1999. Feathers for T, Rex? National Geographic.  196(5):98-107.

[9] Sloan, pp . 100, 101.

[10] Werner, Carl 2007. Evolution: The Grand Experiment Vol. 1 Green Forrest, AR: New Leaf Press. p. 171-172.

[11]Stone, Richard  2010.  “Altering the Past: China’s Faked Fossils Problem.”  Science, 330:1740-1741. December 24, p. 1740.

[12] Balter, Michael. 2013. “Authenticity of China’s Fabulous Fossils Gets New Scrutiny.” Science, 340:1153-1154, June 7. p. 1154.

[13] Stephen Chen, 2018.  Science journal retracts 107 research papers by Chinese authors. South China Morning Post.

[14] Feduccia, Alan. 2003. “Discover Dialogue: Ornithologist and evolutionary biologist Alan Feduccia plucking apart the Dino-Birds,” Discover Magazine. 24(2):16, February. pg. 16.

[15] Stone, 2010, p. 1740.

[16] Stone, 2010, p. 1741.

[17] Balter, 2013, p. 1154.

[18] Balter, 2013, p. 1154.

[19] Balter, 2013, p. 1154.

[20] Witmer, L. 1995, The Search for the Origin of Birds. New York: Franklin Watts. P. 9.

[21] Tarsitano, S. et al., 2000. “On the Evolution of Feathers from an Aerodynamic and Constructional View Point.”  American Zoology, 40:676-686.

[22] Thomas, B. and J. Sarfati,  2018. Researchers remain divided over ‘feathered dinosaurs’ Journal of Creation. 32(1): 121-127.

[23] Thomas, Brian and Sarfati. 2018. p. 121.

[24] Feduccia, A 1999, The Origin and Evolution of Birds. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. Feduccia, A., et al., 2005. Do feathered dinosaurs exist? Testing the hypothesis on neonatological and paleontological evidence. Journal of Morphology 266:125-166.

[25] Brush, A. 1996, On the Origin of Feathers. Journal of Evolutionary Biology. 9:131-142.

[26] McLain et al. 2018, Feathered dinosaurs reconsidered. In Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Creationism, ed. J.H. Whitmore, pp. 472–515. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Creation Science Fellowship. 477.

[27] Lingham-Soliar, T.  2012. The evolution of the feather: Sinosauropteryx, life, death, and preservation of an alleged feathered dinosaur, J. Ornithology 153(3): 699–711.

[28] Brush, 1996, p. 132.

[29] Parkes, K., 1966. Speculations on the origin of feathers. Living Bird 5:77–86.

Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology at several colleges and universities including for over 40 years at Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored, are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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