October 25, 2012
Another week, another feathery dinosaur. Since the discovery of the fluffy Sinosauropteryx in 1996, paleontologists have discovered direct evidence of fuzz, feather-like bristles and complex plumage on over two dozen dinosaur genera. I love it, and I’m especially excited about a discovery announced today. In the latest issue of Science, University of Calgary paleontologist Darla Zelenitsky adds another enfluffled species to the dinosaurian ranks. Even better, the specimens raise hopes that many more dinosaurs might be preserved with their feathery coats intact.
Zelenitsky’s downy dinosaurs are not newly discovered species. Ornithomimus edmontonicus was initially described by famed bone hunter C.H. Sternberg in 1933, and it is one of the characteristic Late Cretaceous species found in Alberta, Canada’s fossil-rich Horseshoe Canyon Formation. In Sternberg’s time, these dinosaurs were thought to be scaly, but recent finds of so many feathery dinosaurs has raised the likeliehood that the “ostrich mimic” dinosaur was at least coated in some sort of dinofuzz.
The prediction of fluffy Ornithomimus came from the spread of feathers on the coelurosaur family tree. The Coelurosauria is a major dinosaur group that encompasses tyrannosaurs, compsognathids, ornithomimosaurs, alvarezsaurs, oviraptorosaurs, deinonychosaurs and birds. To date, evidence of feathers has been found in every coelurosaur lineage except one–the ornithomimosaurs. The spread of feathers hinted that some sort of plumage was present in the common ancestor of all coelurosaurs and therefore should have been inherited by the ornithomimosaurs, but, until now, no one had found direct evidence.
A trio of Ornithomimus skeletons have finally confirmed what paleontologists expected. Zelenitsky enthusiastically explained the details to me by phone earlier this week. In 1995, when Zelenitsky was a graduate student, paleontologists uncovered an articulated Ornithomimus with weird marks on its forearms. No one knew what they were. But in 2008 and 2009 a juvenile and an adult Ornithomimus turned up with preserved tufts of filamentous feathers. “When we found these specimens,” Zelenitsky said, “we made the link to the 1995 dinosaur.” All those strange marks on the arms of the previously discovered Ornithomimus, Zelenitsky and colleagues argue, are traces of longer, shafted feathers.
Even though paleontologists expected feathery Ornithomimus, the discovery was still a surprise. “I was in disbelief,” Zelenitsky said. “They’re the first feathered dinosaurs from the Americas, and the first ornithomimosaurs with feathers, as well. It was shocking to say the least.”
But there’s more to the find than simply adding another species of fluffy dinosaurs to the list. The fact that the adult and juvenile animals had different kinds of plumage adds new evidence that coelurosaurs changed their fluffy coats as they aged. “The one juvenile was completely covered in filamentous type feathers,” Zelenitsky said. What the adults looked like comes from the two other specimens. One adult skeleton, lacking forearms, preserves fuzzy feathers, and “the second adult had markings on the forearm.” Together, the specimens indicate that adult Ornithomimus were mostly covered in fuzz but developed more complex arm feathers by adulthood.
Sex is probably behind the plumage change. “We infer that because these wing feathers are not showing up until later in life, they were used for reproductive purposes,” Zelenitsky said. Perhaps adult Ornithomimus used flashy arm feathers to strut their stuff in front of potential mates. Then again, based upon the resting and brooding postures of other theropod dinosaurs, adult Ornithomimus could have used their proto-wings to cover their nests. We don’t know for sure, but the developmental change appears to be another example of dinosaurs undergoing significant changes as they approach sexual maturity. This discovery, and others like it, will undoubtedly play into the ongoing discussion about the role of sexual selection in dinosaur biology and evolution.
Best of all, the new study indicates that paleontologists may soon find more feathered dinosaurs in unexpected places. The Ornithomimus skeletons were found in prehistoric river deposits composed of sandstone. Since almost all feathered non-avian dinosaurs have been found in fine-grained sediment–such as those around Liaoning, China–paleontologists thought that coarser-grained sandstone deposits were too rough to record such fine details. Now we know better. “That’s the really exciting part of it,” Zelenitsky says. If traces of dinosaur feathers can be preserved in sandstone, the twist opens up the possibility that paleontologists might find fluff and feathers with a greater array of dinosaurs–including the tyrannosaurs, deinonychosaurs, therizinosaurs and other coelurosaurs of North America. The trick is recognizing the traces before they’re destroyed during excavation and preparation. Rock saws and airscribes can all too easily obliterate the delicate fossils. A word to researchers–keep your excavation tools sharp, and your eyes sharper.
Zelenitsky, D., Therrien, F., Erickson, G., DeBuhr, C., Kobayashi, Y., Eberth, D., Hadfield, F. 2012. Feathered non-avian dinosaurs from North American provide insight into wing origins. Science. 338, 510-514
October 11, 2012
How dinosaurs took to the air is one of the longest-running debates in paleontology. Ever since the first skeleton of Archaeopteryx was discovered in 1861, researchers have wondered what the archaic bird might tell us about how flight evolved and how the feathery creature connected its reptilian ancestors with modern birds. Even now, when we know that birds are a feathered dinosaur lineage, the origins of flight remain a contentious issue constrained by the available fossil evidence and our ability to reconstruct how prehistoric creatures moved.
Before paleontologists confirmed that birds are dinosaurs, though, various researchers came up with speculative schemes to explain how birds originated. Naturalist William Beebe, for one, proposed that bird ancestors started off as parachuting reptiles that benefited from expanded scales (his conception of protofeathers). Other scientists came up with their own ideas, imagining everything from seagoing protobirds to gliding reptiles.
When ornithologist Colin Pennycuick wrote his paper “Mechanical Constraints on the Evolution of Flight” in 1986, however, paleontologists were warming to the idea that Archaeopteryx spanned the evolutionary space between living birds and dinosaurs like Deinonychus. This narrowed down the list of early flight scenarios to hotly debated “ground up” or “trees down” hypotheses for the origin of flight, and raised the possibility that feathers evolved among non-avian dinosaurs first. Within these debates, Pennycuick put forward his own idiosyncratic proposal.
Pennycuick believed that birds took to the air by way of the trees. Bird ancestors progressively shrunk in size over time, he believed, and started gliding before they could actually fly. He couldn’t envision that birds evolved from a running, leaping ancestor, as other researchers suggested. For Pennycuick, flight was a gradual extension of gliding.
But what did the ancestor of Archaeopteryx look like? Pennycuick assumed that feathers and flight were closely tied together–something that is not true at all and had already been pointed out by paleontologist John Ostrom in his work on bird origins. Feathers are important for display and insulation and were only later co-opted for flight. All the same, Pennycuick needed a gliding–but featherless–ancestor for Archaeopteryx to make his idea work. So he conjured something really weird.
Pennycuick was puzzled by the clawed fingers of Archaeopteryx. Why would a bird have differentiated fingers? Rather than look at the fingers as just a holdover from dinosaurian ancestry, Pennycuick assumed that they had some kind of flight function. The fingers of Archaeopteryx, he proposed, “could have supported a small, batlike hand-wing.” Such a structure would have been inherited from the featherless ancestor of Archaeopteryx, he proposed, “constituting the main wing area in the stage before feathers were developed.”
Where the feathers of Archaeopteryx came from, Pennycuick couldn’t say. He mused on the need for feathers in the transition from gliding to flight, but he didn’t offer an explanation for how feathers evolved. He only mentioned that “The development of down feathers as thermal insulation is a separate process that may or may not have preceded the development of flight feathers.”
The fuzzy dinosaur Sinosauropteryx proved Pennycuick wrong a decade later. Paleontologists like Ostrom and artists such as Gregory S. Paul had long suspected that feathers were a widespread trait among bird-like theropod dinosaurs, and a flood of exceptional fossils has shown that feathers and their precursors have a deep, deep history. Dinofuzz, or structurally similar body coverings, might even go back to the root of the Dinosauria. How evolutionary forces molded those adornments, however, and what drove the evolution of flight feathers, remain as aggravatingly contentious as ever.
[Hat-tip to paleontologist Victoria Arbour for bringing this paper to my attention]
Pennycuick, C. 1986. Mechanical Constraints on the Evolution of Flight. Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences. 8, 83-98
September 28, 2012
Triceratops was an A+ dinosaur. But, awesome as the hulking ceratopsid was, it didn’t have mutant superpowers. Indeed, despite a website’s claim to the contrary, there’s no evidence that this three-horned behemoth defended itself with poisonous quills.
Even though it was posted over a year ago, I’ve received a few emails this week asking about a Listverse post by user “TyB” titled “Top 10 Dinosaurs That Aren’t What They Were.” For the most part, the list is a simple summary of how new discoveries and ideas have revitalized images of dinosaurs. When the article gets to Triceratops, though, the scientific accuracy careens off the rails.
Rather than being covered in smooth, wrinkly skin, the article states, Triceratops had “alligator-like, flat scales, called scutes, on its belly, and the rest of its body was covered in large scales and knobs.” I don’t know of any published study on Triceratops’ body covering, but it wouldn’t be surprising if, like other dinosaurs, Triceratops had bumpy skin with larger knobs or ornaments here and there. But here’s where things get strange:
Its back and tail also had a series of weird, fist-sized bumps, each one holding a nipple-like structure which has yet to be explained by scientists. These structures may very well be anchoring points for porcupine-like quills, like those found on Triceratops’ older cousin, Psittacosaurus. Or perhaps, some scientists suggest, they were poison glands, oozing toxins to protect the Triceratops’ hindquarters from T-Rex attacks.
I have no idea what this blogger is talking about. I had never heard the idea of a poisonous Triceratops before reading the list, and I don’t know of any paleontologist who has advocated such a notion. I think I know where the post’s author got the basis for their idea, though. For years, there have been rumors of a Triceratops–now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science–that was preserved with skin impressions and possible evidence of bristles along the tail. The scuttlebutt, along with evidence of feather-like bristles in the archaic ceratopsian Psittacosaurus, spurred artists to start putting tufts of quills on Triceratops tails.
No one has formally published a description of these structures, though. Whether they’re truly bristles, some other true body covering or a preservational artifact is unknown. It’s not unreasonable to think that Triceratops had patches of bristles, but the truth is that there’s no positive evidence that such ornamentation actually adorned the dinosaur, either.
But I’m confounded by the suggestion that the base of the quills provided space for “poison glands.” Bristles on Triceratops are iffy to start with, and no one has ever demonstrated that dinosaurs used venom or other toxins for defense. In 2009, one group of researchers proposed that the feathered, sickle-clawed Sinornithosaurus had a venomous bite, but their suggestion was quickly refuted. There’s so evidence that dinosaurs were venomous, poisonous, toxic or otherwise relied on biological warfare. As far as I can tell, the toxic Triceratops is entirely the invention of the list’s author.
That’s not all. In the same post, the author states that “After examining the beak and jaws, paleontologists reached the conclusion that Triceratops may have been partially carnivorous, probably scavenging after T-Rex, or even scaring smaller predators away from their kills.” Again, no one has actually studied this in detail, but, unlike the poison hypothesis, this idea is actually plausible.
Paleontologist and artist Mark Witton raised this point in a description of a gorgeous Styracosaurus illustration he drew a few years ago. As Witton pointed out, the scissor-like jaws of big ceratopsids were probably capable of slicing through flesh as well as plants, and it’s not unreasonable to think that these dinosaurs occasionally picked over meaty carcasses to supplement their diets with some protein. After all, as paleontologist Darren Naish has illustrated, cows and deer do the same thing today. Herbivores can indulge in a meaty meal, just as carnivores sometimes chomp fruit and greens. What we need now is someone to model how a Triceratops skull would handle munching on flesh and bone to put some more science behind the speculation.
September 25, 2012
I’ve spilled a lot of virtual ink about feathered dinosaurs over the past few weeks. Despite assertions to the contrary, bristles, fluff and feathers make dinosaurs more interesting and exciting than they have ever been before. Of course, not every attempt to put plumage on dinosaurs does the animals justice. Case in point–Dino Time 3D.
I’ll watch just about anything with dinosaurs in it. This blog is all about tracking dinosaurs through science and pop culture, after all. But I am not going to subject my brain to Dino Time 3D (formerly DinoMom). Anything that “stars” Rob Schneider and two (!) Baldwin brothers is best avoided, especially since the movie’s trailer is uncomfortably close to this parody trailer of a typical Rob Schneider film.
But the film’s attempt at fluffy dinosaurs may the worst thing of all. I don’t even have a clear idea of what the feather-bearing species are supposed to be–they look like failed attempts at Carnival costumes. And it’s not like it’s impossible to create roughly accurate cartoonish dinosaurs. Many of the animated species on PBS’ Dinosaur Train hit the right balance and show off feathers without looking ridiculous. With a little attention to detail, feathery dinosaurs don’t have to look stupid.
[Hat-tip to Talcott Starr for telling me about this movie.]
August 28, 2012
I adore feathered dinosaurs. It feels a little strange to say that, but it’s true. Few things make me happier than seeing delicately-rendered restorations of theropods covered in fuzz and ceratopsians with some accessory bristles. The various bits of plumage–from quill-like structures to true feathers–make dinosaurs look even more wonderful and fantastic than the drab, scaly monsters I grew up with. And who wouldn’t love a fluffy like dinosaur like Sciurumimus, perhaps the cutest dinosaur of all time?
Of course, not everyone feels the same way. There are some people who want their dinosaurs to be scaly, scaly, scaly, science be damned. They weep, wail and gnash their teeth whenever a new study suggests that another branch of the dinosaur family tree might have been adorned with plumage. It’s as if they expect the Dinosauria to be consistent with an unchanging canon–sci-fi and comic fans suffer a similar apoplexy when one of their favorite characters deviates from their most cherished storyline.
io9′s “We Come From the Future” show recently debated whether science had “ruined” dinosaurs by decorating so many non-avian species with feathers. (Remember–birds are dinosaurs, too, and there have been some very scary birds in the history of life on earth). Granted, some restorations of feathery dinosaurs really do look stupid, and the minor plumes on the heads of Jurassic Park III‘s Velociraptor didn’t really help.
The show’s point-counterpoint debate on the matter isn’t totally serious, and it’s a way to get a tidbit of science out to a wider audience. That’s a good thing. All the same, I’m pretty sick of people who complain that feathers somehow detract from dinosaurian magnificence. How immature can you get? We all love the dinosaurs we first meet as kids, and, for many of us, those leviathans were drab and scaly. But those earlier versions have been slit from stem to stern by more active, colorful and complex dinosaurs, many of which had some kind of feather-like body covering. Which would you prefer? The scaly, sluggish pot-bellied Tyrannosaurus of the mid-20th century, or a svelte, agile predator that has a few patches of fuzz?
Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that all dinosaurs looked like big chickens. Dinosaurs exhibited an array of body structures–from simple, fuzzy tubes to bristles and full-on flight feathers. Some species, like modern birds, even exhibited several different types of feathers. The weird Beipiaosaurus, for one, had fuzzy protofeathers on much of its body but also had a sort of tail fan created by a different feather type. And “feathered dinosaur” doesn’t mean that the animal was entirely cloaked in plumage. Take Psittacosaurus, for example–this little ceratopsian was a very, very distant relative of birds and had a row of bristles along its tail. The structures were probably visual signals, and I have no doubt that same was true among other dinosaurs. Feathers aren’t just about flight or insulation, but they’re also important in display and communication.
And feathers are the key to dinosaur color. I’m still awestruck that we can recreate the colors of creatures that have been extinct for tens of millions of years. By comparing the microscopic details of prehistoric dinosaur feathers to the feathers of modern birds, we can finally answer that most persistent of paleo questions. That fact, alone, makes feathered dinosaurs especially magnificent.
I’m weary of this Portlandia-esque attitude that dinosaurs are over if they’re feathered. Please. New scientific discoveries are allowing us to gain unprecedented insights into the biology of dinosaurs, including the lives of the fluffy species. Feathers are just part of that bigger picture, and I’m ecstatic that paleontologists are reconstructing dinosaurs in ever-greater detail. The point is this. Feathered dinosaurs are awesome. Deal with it.