*Note: the evolutionary ideas set forth by the research cited in this article in no way reflect the scientific or religious beliefs of this writer.
When someone says the word “dinosaur” the first image that comes to your mind is likely more akin to a giant lizard than anything else; perhaps the classic T-Rex or Brontosaurus. After all, dinosaurs are supposed to be scaly, tough-skinned, reptilian animals, right? Let’s face it: this is the image we’ve been spoon-fed by Hollywood movies like Jurassic Park and Godzilla. But remember the argument made by Dr. Alan Grant (actor Sam Neil) throughout the Jurassic Park trilogy? He believed prehistoric dinosaurs had more in common with modern day birds than they did with reptiles. Whether or not this is true has yet to be seen. But science may be closer than you think to unraveling crucial parts of this mystery.
A recent fossil discovery in China has prompted scientists and archeologists to reconsider the notion of scaly dinosaurs. According to national science news reports, the fossil was unearthed in the Liaoning Province fossil beds of China by a team comprised of Xioa-Ting Zheng of the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature in China; Hai-Lu You of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences’ Institute of Geology; and Xing Xu and Zhi-Ming Dong of the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology. The incredible story of their journey and discovery will be retold in the March 19 issue of Nature.
Many paleontologists believed the first “feathered” dinosaurs appeared on planet Earth roughly 150 million years ago. However, this find, according to a science report from MSNBC News, may suggest they appeared much earlier (Feathers Tied to Origin of Dinosaurs: www.msnbc.com). Obviously, this raises several questions about other prehistoric animals–did they have fuzzy, feathered parts too?
Hai-Lu You, a notable researcher from the Institute of Geology in Beijing, had the honor of being part of the paleontology team that discovered the fossil. He recently told BBC News reporters the dinosaur’s body filaments are being called “protofeathers”- “the precursor of modern feathers.” (www.news.bbc.co.uk). He also noted that the feathery filaments on the base of the dinosaur’s tail were “extremely long”, and may have evolved for show and been made up of several bright colors. “The world of dinosaurs would [have been] more colorful and active than we previously imagined.” (1) This notion greatly contrasts the dull, brown-and-gray-skinned images we are often shown in pictures and movies.
This feathered species has been named Tianyulong confuciusi and is will be classified under the vegetarian “ornithischian” group of dinosaurs. Their broader heading falls under the heterodontosaur category, the members of which are said to have “fox-sized bodies and lived as far back as 198 million years ago in the Cretaceous Period.” (1- www.msnbc.com). The team also found evidence of feathery, hollow structures on the creature’s neck, an observation that, ironically, completely aligns with the theories set forth by Dr. Grant from Jurassic Park. Obviously, these structures are in no way similar to the feathers of today’s backyard birds. However, they do support several theories concerning the skeletal makeup of dozens of dino-species.
Although researchers admit that many dinosaur fossils show no signs of feather development, they believe there are currently four types of feathers and “quills”, including true feathers (those which closely resemble the feathers of modern-day birds) and downy or “proto-feathers” (found on maniraptors and modern-day birds). Until now, it was believed that feathers were only found in the saurischian branch of dinosaurs.
Anatomist Lawrence Witmer of Ohio University says, “The reality is that dinosaurs may have evolved a variety of projecting integumentary appendages, things that stick out of the skin, and may have evolved them for a lot of the same reasons, for behavioral display or for regulating body temperature.” Witmer believes it is highly possible that, given their ability to evolve, dinosaurs could have developed feather-like structures. However, he also noted, “Sometimes new discoveries don’t clarify things. They make the picture cloudier.” (www.msnbc.com)