Did All Dinosaurs Have Feathers?

Photo: Dinoguy2 (CC)

Cast of the fossil dromaeosaur specimen NGMC 91 (nicknamed "Dave", cf. Sinornithosaurus). Photo: Dinoguy2 (CC)

I remember reading long ago an article about how man’s own psychological and sociological biases can shape how they view scientific phenomenon. (Sadly, as this was in the pre-Internet days, I can’t locate it anywhere on the Web, so forgive me if the details are vague or off a bit.) Perhaps the best example: when the biological process of impregnation is usually presented, the model is a valiant army of noble sperm battling waves of defenders to the egg as it lays helpless from the attack without the surrounding protections.

This image evokes the idealized fantasies of the Age of Chivalry, turning the act of conception into a battle between knights and warriors over a chaste and passive queen.  (Talk about a Holy Grail.)  It also squares with the gender roles that dominate society, that of the male aggressor and the female as his prey.

It is also, biologically speaking, completely wrong. Or at least that is what many biologists argue after looking at the evidence.  The conclusion of these biologists: the more accurate model is of an egg, eager to become fertilized, utilizing all its energies to attract and capture the sperm, which would otherwise wander cluelessly and aimlessly to their pointless self-destruction. And even then, with the millions of sperm released in each ejaculation, the egg is lucky to acquire even one lucky duck in the batch of losers.  Suddenly, conception looks less like a Camelot romance and more like a Judd Apatow comedy.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in biology, so I don’t have a side in this debate if in fact any debate still exists. What I do understand is human psychology, and thus I do understand that our own biases can create a paradigm that frames our vision of reality, a paradigm that can trump the evidence itself.

With this as a backdrop, it becomes quite quite understandable that when dinosaur bones were first discovered, it would immediately evoke images of lizards.  The creatures revealed by the remains were quite large and thus intimidating, and lizards are quite intimidating as well. (That the dinosaur could evoke mythological visions of dragons certainly didn’t hurt either.)  It is quite understandable looking at their skeletons to immediately equate them with giant reptiles, covered with scaly hides.

Slowly, however, a dissenting view of the dinosaur has developed and evolved, a scientific argument based on observation. The dinosaur, these intellectual renegades have argued, have less in common biologically with reptiles and more in common with birds, which are direct descendants of the dinosaur. Given that lineage, it would be more likely that dinosaurs would be covered with feathers.

As evidence has slowly been uncovered of dinosaurs that did indeed have feathers, what was once dismissed without comment has been included in the officially sanctioned view of reality.  Yes, some dinosaurs did have feathers, at least the smaller ones. Still, as the creatures got larger, the lower the percentage of the creatures that would have feathers.  Thus, the establishment view of prehistoric reality could continue with only minor modifications.

This vision has taken a major blow recently with the discovery of Yutyrannus huali, a name that translates into “beautiful feathered tyrant.”  As MSNBC reports:

A team of Chinese and Canadian scientists analyzed three well-preserved fossil skeletons — an adult and two juveniles — recovered from a quarry in China’s Liaoning Province by a private fossil dealer. Most striking were remains of downlike feathers on the neck and arm. Though coverage was patchy, scientists suspected the species had feathers over much of its body.

Granted, Yuty-hu wasn’t quite as big as T. rex, but it was big enough in its own right, 30 feet long and weighing over a ton.  So the obvious question that MSNBC asks: “If a T. rex relative had feathers, why not T. rex?”  As Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County summarized: “People need to start changing their image of T. rex.”

But perhaps this is merely the tip of the iceberg.  Rather than ask if T. rex had feathers, shouldn’t it be asked if ALL dinosaurs had feathers?  Granted, perhaps this is an assertion that is absurdly false, and one that is almost impossible to prove to boot.  But somehow I suspect that just by asking this absurd little question, one may get a closer view of prehistoric reality than what has dominated our belief system.

To read more:“Scientists find the king of the feathered dinosaurs”

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  • RoboKy

    I’ll just be the first to say it:  As someone who grew up in the late 80’s/early 90’s, my childhood obsession with dinosaurs was all encompassing.  So you’ll forgive me when I cringe at every science news article I see that tells me that all the mental images I have of these badass thunder lizards are completely inaccurate.  Call it visual conditioning, but I dont think I’ll ever find dinosaurs with feathers (aside from the likes of Archaeopteryx) visually appealing.

  • tooCents

    Huh, so the point is made that interpretation of scientific phenomenon is influenced by psychological and social biases with an example of the older picture presented of conception reflecting patriarchy and traditional genders roles. But now, the article seems to say, scientists have overcome this bogus view of each sperm racing to beat all the others to take the passive egg, etc. Now, scientists see more clearly the data. Sperm don’t compete like little warriors and it turns out the egg is an active agent in getting these dumb, clueless sperm to do what they’re supposed to.
    “the egg is lucky to acquire even one lucky duck in the batch of losers.
     Suddenly, conception looks less like a Camelot romance and more like a
    Judd Apatow comedy.”
    You are more likely to see Judd Apatow male character types in films these days.
    Yea interpretation of scientific research is often affected by the social biases, psychology and so on, of scientists and people in general.

    • Robalini

      LOL. Though the article I’m citing is from the early 90s (pre-Internet and pre-Apatow) your point is well taken.  Indeed, it’s probable the developers of the new theory of impregnation were inspired by disdain of what they viewed as the sexist paradigm that dominated to investigate and create their new model…

  • chinagreenelvis
  • Raz

    Tell that to a creationist!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bobbie-Jean-Pentecost/100000391760333 Bobbie Jean Pentecost

    Feathers are basically a kind of scale anyway so it is not at all unbelievable to me that most, possibly all dinos had some form of feather coverage.

  • Messiercat

    I’ve always assumed that some therapods had feathers because they survived to evolve into birds, but sauropods and ornithischian dinosaurs along with the ceratopsians didn’t. It’s fascinating to envision a feathered tyrannosaur.

    • tooCents

      With pink feathers and eyelashes. Prances when it walks.

    • N. Drake

      Well therapods were related to what eventually evolved into birds, but most of them went extinct at the KT boundary and did not survive(i.e. evolve). The species that survived were already quite birdlike and small.

    • Robalini

      It’s nice you seem to understand the spirit of this article.  I’m not actually saying that all dinosaurs had feathers, but by starting with that assumption, we end up with a far different vision of what prehistoric life is, and I am beginning to suspect this vision is probably more accurate than the one we have.  I’ve been following the “Dinosaurs had feathers” theory since 1993 when I read about it in the hype surrounding Jurassic Park.  The idea at the time seemed totally opposed to everything I thought I know about dinosaurs, which is why I found it to be so fascinating…

  • Gregory Wyrdmaven

    We have no fucking idea what dinosaurs looked like.  If you found a poodle skeleton and had no idea what a poodle looked like, you’d dream up something that looked like a jabberwock.  Let’s not pretend we have a complete fossil record either, folks.  First of all…the conditions under which a corpse is fossilized are pretty exact.  Also, we’d have had to excavate all of the earth’s crust (which means all of Mt Everest above and below the ground) in order to find all the fossils, which wouldn’t even then be a complete record of organic life.

    Having a whole field of science devoted to saying dinosaurs were this or that is like someone having a career telling you what a jigsaw puzzle looks like completed but they only have a dozen or so pieces.

    Fiat lux, for crying out loud.

    • http://profiles.google.com/potter.dee Potter Dee

       you must live a terribly boring life.

  • Jbocadk

    Birds are dinosaurs

  • Gellemarie

    Nicely written article, thanks!

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