North American ‘feathered’ dinosaurs a flight of fancy


Julius Csotonyi This ‘artist’s reconstruction’ greatly misrepresents the fossil evidence for ‘feathers’
Figure 1. This ‘artist’s reconstruction’ greatly misrepresents the fossil evidence for ‘feathers’

The science news has been abuzz with astounding claims that the first ‘feathered dinosaur’ has been found in North America (See Dinosaurs looking for love grew alluring feathers). ScienceDaily announced, “Fossils of first feathered dinosaurs from North America discovered: Clues on early wing uses.”

However, the small print of the news release reveals that researchers have merely discovered “lengthy wisps” on an adult. They did not find any wisps on any juvenile specimens.

Note it was just “lengthy wisps”. I would not be surprised if the wisps turn out to be something other than feathers, such as partly decayed collagen fibres.

In order to make the announcement convincing and grab the media’s imagination the news releases were accompanied by a spectacular drawing of a dinosaur running through long bushes arrayed with massive plumage of brilliantly coloured feathers on its forelimbs (figure 1). These were drawn as proper feathers, not just a few wisps.

The news release was accompanied by an image of the actual fossil (figure 2). There is not a single feather visible on the fossil, or even an impression of a feather. Obviously the feathers on the drawing were found in the artist’s head. And to call the drawing an “artist’s reconstruction” seems like spin.

Apart from the misinformation in the claim that the dinosaur Ornithomimus had feathered wings, it raised many puzzles and questions. It was not difficult to list some of them.

  1. Ornithomimus was too big and its alleged wings were too small for it to be able to fly. The researchers said this indicates the initial use of its wings was not for flight.
  2. Royal Tyrrell Museum Dinosaur fossil is well preserved and in classic “dead dinosaur pose” indicating it was in death throes after being rapidly buried.
    Figure 2. Dinosaur fossil is well preserved and in classic “dead dinosaur pose” pose. This has been attributed to opisthotonus due to suffocation by being rapidly buried, or to buoyancy upon submersion enabling a spinal ligament to pull back the neck and tail.
  3. The large clusters of feathers on its forelimbs (as drawn by the artist) would have been of no use for flying. But they would have been a major hindrance for walking and feeding. The researchers said the dinosaurs may have used their “flashy feathers” to woo potential mates, peacock style.
  4. The announcement said the find will "shed light on origin of wings". However, according to evolutionary assumptions wings already existed. Archaeopteryx is ‘dated’ as 80 million years older than this Canadian Ornithomimus, which was assigned to the late Cretaceous, supposedly 71 million years ago. This has long been claimed to be the ancestor of birds and already had wings—impressive ones at that. Indeed, it looks like it could fly.
  5. The reports said the Ornithomimus specimens were apparently covered in “stringy down up to 2 inches (5 cm) long”. Note that these are not feathers but just “stringy down”. Yet the report described the strings as “filament-like feathers” (more spin). Note that the artist’s embellishment, showed not lengths of stringy down on the limbs but, an impressive array of fully formed feathers.
  6. Most of the fossils of Archaeopteryx, which is dated at 80 million years older than this Ornithomimus fossil, include impressions of feathers—impressions that were of an ‘advanced’ form, in that they are of flight feathers. So Ornithomimus throws no light on the origin of feathers, even within their own evolutionary framework, because feathers already existed.
  7. Note that the fossil is well preserved, indicating that the creature was buried rapidly before it had been scavenged and before the remains had rotted and disintegrated. The evidence points to a short time for the death and burial of the fossil.
  8. Note, too, the posture of the animal. Its back is arched, legs thrown forward and bent, neck curved tightly and head forward. This is the classic ‘dead dinosaur posture’ which indicates rapid burial. It has been suggested this opisthotonic posture is due to the animal being suffocated as it was buried (see Death throes), or submersion increasing buoyancy so that a strong spinal ligament can pull back the tail and neck (see ‘Feathered’ dinos: no feathers after all!).

The puzzles, bloopers, problems and need for exaggerated artist’s reconstructions disappear when we look at this evidence from the point of view of biblical history. These dinosaurs were buried during Noah’s Flood as the waters were rising. They were overwhelmed and their remains were interred without much passage of time (See Watery catastrophe deduced from huge Ceratopsian dinosaur graveyard). To be more precise, the dinosaurs were likely buried as the waters neared their peak. Did these dinosaurs have stringy filaments on their front legs when they were alive? That is an open question. But these animals were not on the way to evolving into birds. They and the birds existed together, and, apart from those on the Ark, they were all overwhelmed and perished during the Flood.

Published: 8 November 2012