July 5, 2012
On Monday, the world met yet another fuzzy dinosaur. The little theropod – named Sciurumimus albersdoerferi – is beautifully preserved in a slab of roughly 150 million year old limestone found in Germany. (These deposits have also brought us Archaeopteryx and the also-fluffy Juravenator.) And, with a little evolutionary context, Sciurumimus hints that filament-like protofeathers were more common among dinosaurs than we previously expected.
Birds – the only surviving lineage of dinosaurs – are covered in plumage. No surprise there. But since 1996, paleontologists have identified about 30 genera of non-avian dinosaurs with feathers. Most of these dinosaurs are coelurosaurs – the major group of theropod dinosaurs that contains tyrannosaurs, the switchblade-clawed deinonychosaurs, the truly weird therizinosaurs, and, among others, birds. As the discoveries accumulated, it seemed that feathers originated at the base of this group, and were inherited by birds. And feathers were not only present an small, especially bird-like dinosaurs. As the recently-described Yutyrannus shows, even 30-foot-long tyrannosaurs were fluffy.
Up until a few years ago, birds and their closest non-avian relatives were the only dinosaurs known to have feathers. Simple enough. But then two ornithischians crashed the party.You see, the dinosaur family tree is split into two halves – the saurischians on one side, and the ornithischians on the other. The split goes back about 230 million years or so, nearly to the origin of the very first dinosaurs.
The feathery coelurosaurs belong to the saurischian side of the tree, but paleontologists have also discovered dinosaurs on the other side – on the ornithischian branches – with feather-like structures. In 2002, paleontologists discovered that the archaic ceratopsian dinosaur Psittacosaurus had a brush of bristle-like structures jutting from its tail. And in 2009, another team discovered Tianyulong – another ornithischian dinosaur with a row of similar filaments running down its back. The bristles were not just like the fuzz and feathers seen among the coelurosaurs, but they were structurally similar.
Paleontologists were left with two possibilities. Either protofeathers evolved multiple times in different dinosaur lineages, or simple “dinofuzz” was an ancestral dinosaur feature that was later lost in some lineages. We don’t have enough fossils yet to know for sure, but the discovery of Sciurumimus is a significant clue that most, if not all, dinosaur lineages were at least partially decorated with protofeathers.
Even though Sciurumimus is a theropod dinosaur – part of the saurischian side of the family – it isn’t a coelurosaur. Sciurumimus is a megalosauroid, which is a lineage of dinosaurs that’s closer to the base of the theropod group. In other words, Sciurumimus is a relatively archaic theropod that isn’t very closely related to birds, yet it still has dinofuzz.
Paleontologist Thomas Holtz helped provide some context on Twitter shortly after the new dinosaur was announced. Before Sciurumimus, only coelurosaurs were known to have fuzz. (What the bristles on Psittacosaurus and Tianyulong actually are is still unclear, but no one calls their filaments “fuzz.”) After Sciurumimus, fuzz has been moved down a branch to a group called the Carnosauria.
We are still left with two possibilities. The fuzz on Sciurumimus could have originated independently. But as paleontologists add fuzz to lineages of dinosaurs only distantly-related to birds, it seems less and less likely that protofeathers evolved from scratch in each and every lineage. It’s looking more and more like feathers were a common, ancestral feature of dinosaurs. In this case, Sciurumimus indicates that simple feathers were an early, common theropod trait that evolved close to the origin of the group. The diminutive dinosaur also fits in the wide gap between coelurosaurs and their very distant ornithischian dinosaurs, bringing us a little closer to the idea that dinofuzz was an early, widely-shared dinosaur feature.
And there’s something else. Pterosaurs – the flying archosaurs with leathery wings stretched over elongated wing fingers – were the closest relatives to the Dinosauria as a whole. They had fuzzy body coverings, too. No one knows for sure, but this might mean that wispy plumage was present in the last common ancestor of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, and those simple body coverings were subsequently modified or lost in different lineages as both groups evolved.
We need more fossils to test the idea that dinosaurs started out feathery. Additional fossils preserving fuzz – fluffy baby sauropods, maybe? – would help us understand the spread of feathers and their precursors among dinosaurs. And, even then, we’d still need to find exceptionally-preserved specimens of the earliest dinosaurs to see if they had any kind of filament-like body covering. The trouble is that the high-definition deposits that would even have a chance of preserving feathers are rare. It may be a very long time before we ever know for sure.
Nevertheless, there’s still a possibility that all dinosaur lineages had some kind of bristly or feathery body covering. It’s a hypothesis that needs testing, but not an unreasonable one. Think about this for a moment. Imagine a Stegosaurus with patches of long, stiff filaments covering its body, or a Ceratosaurus with a little splash of brightly-covered fuzz on its already well-decorated head. And I think a huge sauropod – like Apatosaurus – with a partial covering of dinofuzz would look absolutely spectacular. These visions are wholly different than the scaly dinosaurs I grew up with, but they are not so fantastic as to be fiction. We are only just beginning to understand how fuzzy dinosaurs were.
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