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‘Feathered’ dinos: no feathers after all!


Published: 24 July 2012 (GMT+10)
Subsequently published in Journal of Creation 26(3):8–10
Sinosauropteryx specimen GMV 2124, from Liaoning Province, China; in the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde (State Museum of Natural History), Karlsruhe, Germany. Note the classic ‘dead dino posture’—head thrown back, tail extended, with hind limbs bent—called opisthotonus, the result of muscle spasms caused by suffocation.

Ever since Darwin, evolutionists have had a huge difficulty: the fossil record lacks the innumerable ‘missing links’ predicted by them and required by their theory. Instead, all evolutionists can produce are a handful of debatable examples (see The Links are Missing); whereas it’s not just links that are missing but whole lengths in the evolutionary chain!

From time to time, evolutionists produce a transitional-series-du-jour. One of the most prominent recent claims is that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs, a supposedly carnivorous group that included T. Rex and Velociraptor. However, even a number of evolutionary paleo-ornithologists (fossil bird experts), such as Alan Feduccia, Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, have been harshly critical of the dogmatic way in which the theory has been promoted. They partly blame this dogma for the notorious Archaeoraptor hoax of 1999–2000.

Another big problem is the hugely different avian lung design. The alleged first bird Archaeopteryx had the classic avian through-flow lungs, while the alleged feathered dino Sinosauropteryx had a clearly reptilian bellows lung. And it was younger than Archaeopteryx, according to the evolutionists’ own dating methods and contrary to evolutionary expectations. As Feduccia likes to quip, “You can’t be older than your grandfather.” While evolutionists claim that a trait might persist in a lineage well after a descendant lineage has evolved, the evidence they are claiming dates the version with a fully-formed avian lung prior to the other. When did the avian lung, then, evolve? And the main point was that evolution was alleged to be supported by the order of fossil succession, but clearly this is not so.

Feathered dinosaurs?

One major point evolutionists use to support their ‘missing link’ between birds and dinos is dinosaurs having feathers. One of the most famous is Sinosauropteryx (meaning Chinese reptilian wing), a tiny creature discovered in 1996. The largest known specimen weighed only about 0.55 kg (1.2 lb), and was only 1.07 m (3.5 ft) long. This included its tail, the longest in relation to its total body length of any theropod.

CMI has long pointed out that there is nothing in the biblical creationist model that states that dinosaurs must lack feathers. Having said that, however, we also point out that the examples to date have been far from convincing. There is good reason to believe that the feathers were just frayed structural collagen fibres.1,2

Nonetheless, the feather claim has its defenders as well, such as Prof. Zhang Fucheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and his colleagues, who claim to be “refuting recent claims that the filaments are partially decayed dermal collagen fibres.”3

Wikipedia.orgThis Struthiomimus dinosaur died in the classic ‘dead dino posture’—head back, tail extended, with hind limbs bent.
This Struthiomimus dinosaur is also in the ‘dead dinosaur pose’.

To support their claimed refutation, Zhang et al. claimed to have discovered colour-producing cell organelles called eumelanosomes and pheomelanosomes in a Sinosauropteryx specimen. These produce the very dark eumelanin and reddish-brown pheomelanin pigments in feathers (see also Colourful creature coats). From this, they argued that they even had proof for stripes on its tail. But Prof. Theagarten Lingham-Soliar at the University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa (and co-author of Ref’s 1 and 2) has criticized their claims as an: “optical illusion created when the SEM [scanning electron micrograph] is reproduced at low image size.”4 And in a recent paper, he has provided further evidence against this claim, and also inadvertently found strong evidence for the Genesis Flood.5

Animal decay

As noted above, Sinosauropteryx had a reptilian lung. How could we know? Because unlike most dinosaur fossils, which are nothing but mineralized bones, this creature was well enough preserved that one could analyze the shape of some of its internal organs. The fact that these details were preserved points to very rapid burial, before these organs could rot or be scavenged away. (Since the discovery of Sinosauropteryx, dinosaur blood cells, blood vessels and collagen, and osteocalcin have been found, which could not have lasted millions of years.) Also, the preservation of the internal organs would seem to rule out vertebrate predators or scavengers, since they “usually target the gut first.”

Therefore, Lingham-Soliar wanted to find out why Sinosauropteryx should be so well preserved. He noted the typical ‘dead dinosaur posture’ with the neck and tail thrown backwards (all the fossils illustrated in this article illustrate that posture). In the last few years, scientists have realized that this posture was actually opisthotonus, the result of severe muscle spasms caused by malfunctioning of the central nervous system, especially with oxygen deprivation.6 Thus they are the final death throes, which we have argued is consistent with most of them being drowned or buried alive by the Flood.

Since no-one saw the creature die and fossilize, the next best thing is to see what happens to dead animals. (The study of decay and fossilization is called taphonomy). Lingham-Soliar analyzed two dead animals over time in a ‘natural’ setting: a genet (Genetta genetta), a cat-like animal but probably in the mongoose kind; and the Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica), the second deadliest snake in Africa, after the black mamba.

Sparing some of the gory details, with the genet, within a day, internal decomposition and bloating had already forced liquids out the body openings. Then maggots had their fill, but notably, not in the gut region until day 4. After that, the decay increased exponentially, so only one day later, almost all the soft tissue was gone, and the maggots left the carcass to pupate. The authors note about the creationist founder of taxonomy (classification):

Wikimedia/H. RaabPhoto of the second find, Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paleontologie und historische Geologie
Archaeopteryx lithographica, Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History) in Berlin. This is a picture of the actual fossil, not a cast. It also shows clear signs of opisthotonus.

Linnaeus (1767) stated that three flies may decompose the cadaver of a horse as quickly as a lion.

With the cobra, the process took longer, but once again, it was mainly maggots, but this time also ants, and again the gut was targeted quite late. Also, the insects liked the protein-rich connective tissue under the scales, which quickly separated the scales from the body. The authors note:

it is possible to hypothesize from this phenomenon why scales are so rarely (or sparsely) preserved in small non-avian dinosaurs such as Sinosauropteryx, Compsognathus and Juravenoter—the absence of scales have frequently been used to suggest the presence of feathers in the animals’ primary condition.

But neither the genet nor the cobra carcasses exhibited opisthotonus, which ruled out the earlier idea that the dead dinosaur posture was caused by post-mortem changes.

Applications to Sinosauropteryx death

As noted, the dead dinosaur posture indicates death by suffocation. The specimen seemed to exhibit the signs of the same purged decomposition liquids as the dead genet. The preserved gut (including a pair of eggs), indicate that any scavenging was likely by insects, then the carcass was quickly buried “at most a few days after death.” The authors attribute the death to toxic volcanic gases, then burial by volcanic ash or mud flows.

Actually the evidence, considering how widespread the dead dino posture is (also seen in Archaeopteryx), is consistent with the Genesis Flood. This would produce greatly increased volcanic activity. The rapid burial is also consistent with the Flood. But what about insect decomposition? Actually, computer simulations have shown that the flood waters would not rise steadily but would fluctuate so that land would be exposed for days at a time.7 This is why we find dinosaur footprints and eggs (see In the footsteps of giants). This exposure would allow insects time to colonize the carcass, but not time to eat the gut, before it was buried completely.

Crest not feathers

Back to the heading of the article, the dead dino posture provided insights into what the claimed feather filaments actually were. The death throes caused buckling of the thick integument (skin) on the animal’s back, which would be possible only if the filaments were part of a single structure not separate feathers.

compressive and tensile forces acting on a clearly unified structure, i.e. an upright frill or crest overlying the neck, back and tail of Sinosauropteryx … as opposed to individual proto-feathers, is considered more reasonable …

the results include the most controversial issue associated with Sinosauropteryx and strongly demonstrate, based on soft tissue analysis and forensic animation, that the dorsal, externally preserved integumental tissue represents a dorsal crest rather than protofeathers …

This supports their earlier statement:

The description presented here shows that the filamentous structures were internal support fibres that together with the overlying dermal tissue … comprised a composite structure, i.e. an external frill or crest (compare Jesus lizard, Basiliscus plumifrons, and frilled lizard, Chlamydosaurus kingii), comprehensively refuting the notion of free filaments, i.e. protofeathers in Sinosauropteryx.

In further support, “the tail terminates in a unique, smoothly edged, spatula-shaped structure”, which near the end provided “little surface area for the attachment of protofeathers.” Also, because this creature seemed to live near a lake, according to evolutionary reconstructions anyway, “a crest-like structure on the tail or body or both [would be] useful in swimming”, so they express amazement that such a structure had not been considered.


While feathered dinosaurs are not ruled out by the biblical creationist model, the claims of feathers are looking more and more dubious. In one of the most famous claimed feathered dinosaurs, Sinosauropteryx, the evidence indicates that the filaments were not separate feathers, but support fibres for a unified structure like a crest. Also, the death posture indicates suffocation, and careful analysis of the normal decay process of animal carcasses in nature shows that it must have been buried completely within a few days at most.

Update: Another theory for the ‘dead dino posture’ is also consistent with the Flood: it turns out that recently killed chickens spontaneously go into the same arched-back pose after immersion under water (see also Water and death throes). They have a strong ligament along the spine, the Ligamentum elasticum, which is already taut. The buoyancy under water enabled the ligament to overcome the weight and pull the neck and tail back. As the muscles decayed, this ligament encountered even less resistance, so the bending increased even more.

This effect would have been even stronger in dinosaurs with long, slender necks and tails. They would have needed very strong, elastic ligaments for energy saving. The length would have also increased the leverage of the elastic forces.

Swiss sedimentologist Achim Reisdorf and German paleontologist Michael Wuttke, authors of a detailed study8, explained:

A strong Ligamentum elasticum was essential for all long necked dinosaurs with a long tail. The preloaded ligament helped them saving energy in their terrestrial mode of life. Following their death, at which they were immersed in water, the stored energy along the vertebra was strong enough to arch back the spine, increasingly so as more and more muscles and other soft parts were decaying. It is a special highlight that, in the Compsognathus specimen, these gradual steps of recurvature can be substantiated, too. Therefore, biomechanics is ruling the postmortem weird posture of a carcass in a watery grave, not death throes.9,10

Of course, the Genesis Flood would provide excellent conditions for full immersion of animals!


  1. Feduccia, A., Lingham-Soliar, T., and Hinchliffe, J.R., Do Feathered Dinosaurs Exist?: Testing the Hypothesis on Neontological and Paleontological Evidence, J. Morphology 266:125–166, 2005 | DOI: 10.1002/jmor.10382; Published Online: 10 October 2005. Return to text.
  2. Lingham-Soliar, T., Alan Feduccia, A. and Wang, X., A new Chinese specimen indicates that ‘protofeathers’ in the Early Cretaceous theropod dinosaur Sinosauropteryx are degraded collagen fibres, Proc. Royal Soc. B | doi:10.1098/rspb.2007.0352, Published online 23 May 2007. Return to text.
  3. Zhang F. et al., Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Cretaceous dinosaurs and birds, Nature 463:1075–1078, 2010 | doi:10.1038/nature08740. Return to text.
  4. Lingham-Soliar T., The evolution of the feather: Sinosauropteryx, a colourful tail, J. Ornithol 152(3):567–577, 2011 | doi:10.1007/s10336-010-0620-y. Return to text.
  5. Lingham-Soliar T., The evolution of the feather: Sinosauropteryx, life, death, and preservation of an alleged feathered dinosaur, J. Ornithol. 153(3):699–711, 2012 | DOI 10.1007/s10336-011-0787-x. Return to text.
  6. Marshall Faux, C. and Padian, K., The opisthotonic posture of vertebrate skeletons: post-mortem contraction or death throes? Paleobiology 33(2):201–226, 2007. Return to text.
  7. Barnette, D.W. and Baumgardner, J.R., Patterns of ocean circulation over the continents during Noah’s Flood; in: Walsh, R.E. (Ed.), Proc. Third Int. Conf. Creationism, Technical Symposium Sessions, Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, pp. 77–86, 1994. Return to text.
  8. Reisdorf, A.G. and Wuttke, M., Re-evaluating Moodie’s opisthotonic-posture hypothesis in fossil vertebrates Part I: Reptiles—the taphonomy of the bipedal dinosaurs Compsognathus longipes and Juravenator starki from the Solnhofen Archipelago (Jurassic, Germany), Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments 92:119–168, 2012 | DOI 10.1007/s12549-011-0068-y. Return to text.
  9. Reisdorf and Wuttke, cited in Why Do Dinosaur Skeletons Look So Weird? ScienceDaily, 16 February 2012. Return to text.
  10. See also Wile, J., Arched Necks In Dinosaur Fossils: Is Water to Blame? blog.drwile.com/?p=7118, 28 February 2012. Return to text.

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