“…all Dinosaurs had feathers”

The report (HT John Wilson) begins: “The first ever example of a plant-eating dinosaur with feathers and
scales has been discovered in Russia. Previously only flesh-eating
dinosaurs were known to have had feathers so this new find indicates
that all dinosaurs could have been feathered.”

The big thing here is the “all” I have been waiting for. Conceptually, this is huge.

The other key term is “Ornithschian”, one of the two large divisions of Dinosaurs– the plant- eating ones that often walk on four legs rather than two, including the duckbills and the Triceratops and its relatives. Some of us have thought  since the eighties that the meat- eating two legged Dinos, up to and including T rex (as Robert Bakker called it, “the 12000 pound Roadrunner from Hell”), were all feathered, and they did give rise to birds. But though we knew that some had weird bristly structures, it was less clear that the other group were feathered. Now it seems that from the start, maybe even before the Dino family split on two, that they came out of the Triassic extinctions wearing feathers. (There was a greater extinction  event BEFORE the Dinos, (see Out of Thin Air by Peter Ward), and its low- oxygen conditions may have caused the Dino- bird line to develop the air sacs, hollow bones, and efficient breathing that allow birds to fly over the Himalayas and “Brontosaurs”  to be agile moving animals even though they were bigger than my house).

In honor of all this, my favorite over- the- top depiction of the new standard, a feathered T rex attacking a “hairy” young Triceratops, and a dead Velociraptor by John Conway.

We Need More Feathered Dinos

John McLoughlin was writing about them in the late SEVENTIES. Isn’t it time yet to acknowlege, preferably before the next Jurassic Park, that dinos resemble eagles and turkeys and Roadrunners more than, oh, fence lizards?

Especially with all the good artists around…

These last would be so good if they weren’t lizard- naked!

This guy has known it for a long time…

And this one; well, these ones holding their long – ago first books in front of my house some years back, but I learned at least partly from the guy with the beard.

Feathered Tyrants

Are we finally having the sense to use feathers as the default condition on at least Theropod Dinos? New and new- ish examples of these smaller relatives of T rex would seem to argue “yes”.

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Switek muses on the state of the art

See also the website of John Conway, the most startling and maybe the most interesting interpreter of Dinos I know of. Currently you are confronted by the scariest “birdy” T rex around when you go to his site.

(He also has the sense to depict his big predators with their mouths closed. John McLoughlin, one of the pioneers in depicting and imagining birdlike Dinosaurs, has been complaining about fossil carnivores with mouths agape for about 30 years).

Mahakala(s): Mongolian Free Association

I took a bunch of Mongolian artifacts to the Magdalena Library Saturday as visual aids to a talk by my friend Ian Jenness. He and his wife had taken the Trans- Siberian to Lake Baikal and Irkutsk, then dropped down to Ulan Bataar, spent a week or so in Mongolia in ger camps, then continued by rail through China.

I bought snuff boxes and 19th Century books and clothing and a muzzleloader and folk paintings, and several images of this guy:

Though he looks monstrous to Western eyes, he is in fact supposed to be a fierce protector; one of his “jobs” is Protector of Monasteries. This may well have special relevance to Mongolia in the past (and Tibet in the present?) Although Choibaltsan is sometimes called the Mongol Stalin, and ruled for about the same span of years, his reign was marked more by stultifying bureaucracy then terror– except for monasteries and (as always with dictators?) minority tribes. I was once shown a cave where he had ordered 30 monks burned alive in the 50’s, with soot still visible on the roof. It was refreshing to know that the family who showed me the cave were the proud parents of a novice monk, who took a day off to join us at our feast at their summer ger.

(From Wiki: ” Choibalsan oversaw violent Soviet-ordered purges in the late 1930s that
resulted in the deaths of an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Mongolians;
mostly Buddhist clergy, intelligentsia, political dissidents, ethnic Buryats and Khazaks, and other “enemies of the revolution.” His intense persecution of Mongolia’s Buddhists brought about their near complete extinction in the country.”)

But wait– there is more. Mahakala is also the genus of a small but taxonomically important feathered Mongolian Dino, a sort of roadrunner with a bony tail.

Brian Switek writes about his discovery here; and Carl Zimmer tell us how his lineage illuminates the bird- Dino lineage here.

Feathered Tyrants

It is almost 30 years since Robert Bakker referred to Tyrannosaurus rex as the “roadrunner from Hell”. Some of us, like John McLaughlin, got the message right away. After all the intervening years, as the lines between “bird” and “dinosaur” have become blurrier and blurrier, the Zeitgeist is finally catching up. The first big “bird”, below, is a recently discovered predecessor of T. rex, and definitely had feathers. The dramatic rendition below it reasonably shows the monster herself, as she might well have been. I suspect someone from the 1950s, when dinosaurs were lizards, would see these big birds as something out of science fiction.

First image from Science; second here.

Paleo Art comes of age…

Which doesn’t mean gets dull and predictable. On the contrary, the abundance of “new” fossils  has given birth to a generation of artistic and scientific iconoclasts whose bold new vision is far more rooted in the past than any older generation’s was. The inimitable polymath and prodigiously productive blogger Darren Naish, a serious anatomist, was raised on the same romantic classical dinos as I was; it is hard not to admire the old lizard- tailed reptiles as art, and their artists as virtuoso painters. But, as he says in the intro to All Yesterdays, an entertaining mixture of paleontology and art that could be a manifesto for the clear- eyed new breed of artist- scientists, “Rudolph F. Zallinger’s animals– most famously depicted in the Zallinger mural at Yale’s Peabody Museum– were clearly done with only a superficial reference to the skeletons of the species concerned.” The great Charles Knight knew better, but he “…gave dinosaurs small, slender muscles that did not match their bones (dinosaurs actually seem to have had enormous, more bird- like muscles) and frequently drew dinosaurs freehand- style, again with what looks like poor attention to the proportions and nuances of the actual skeletons.”

The old paradigm was overthrown in the seventies, when I was younger than Darren is now, by Ostrom at Yale and the flamboyant Robert Bakker out in the Badlands, and by John McLoughlin’s first brilliant attempts to illustrate the dinos as, well, birds. But neither Bakker’s description of Tyrannosaurus as a “Roadrunner from Hell”,  nor McLoughlin’s deadly genetically reconstructed Imperial pets in his his 1983 novel The Helix and the Sword , the Deinonychids Moscow and Washington, penetrated pop consciousness; Jurassic Park’s big “Velociraptors” (not really), sisters of the Emperor’s killers, were as reptilian as lizards, which made as much sense as having naked chickens or eagles walking around. Raptor types actually had feathers more like a goshawk’s than a kiwi’s, never mind scales– we have found the feather insertions for big asymmetrical quills in their arms.

Bakker with dinosaur

McLoughlin self- portrait with “social hybrid of man and wolf” (his phrase)

Researchers and artists like Greg Paul and Luis Rey have since blown the old paradigm to hell with their properly birdy angular anatomy; Rey in particular adds wild primary colors and patterns, not because he knows what color they were but because both birds and for that matter lizards tend to use pattern and color in their rituals; the few fossils that show Mesozoic feather patterns indicate he is leaning in the right direction.

There are three new books that exemplify the new tradition. All Yesterdays is at once the most explicitly theoretical and “in your face”, but also the most whimsical; Pterosaurs , by Mark Witton (who also has an excellent blog) is a genuine monograph by a expert, using the same rigorous standards, showing us what is known to date about creatures most people would assume were from another planet than ours, contemporary with not only dinosaurs but perfectly recognizable birds; A Field Guide to Mesozoic Birds and other Winged Dinosaurs by Matthew Martiniuk is the first book I know that simply poses various theropods and other later animals as though they were birds as to body carriage, how they hold their arms or wings– something I see with relief and consider overdue– and puts them in “Bird Guide” format.

The one for all naturalists with a sense of humor is All Yesterdays; after Darren declares that “this book is firmly grounded in a skeptical, rigorous, evidence- led effort to study and depict anatomy: the approach promoted by Paul, Anton, and the like…”,  he reminds us that things like fat and feathers and integument, “manes, ruffs, , thick furry coats…”; not to mention behavior, can all affect appearance. Then he hands over the reins to artists John Conway and C.N. Kosemen and lets them run.

Every one of these reconstructions is original; some look rather like dinosaurs, some like odd little mammals (see the fluffy little Leaellynasaura, with its lemur tail held upright in a snowstorm); some are fairly conventional but doing unfamiliar things; one is fat, two invisible, and the Elasmosauruses in neck-swinging contests look more like sea worms in a colony than the Loch Ness monster. Perhaps my favorite is their reconstruction of the Therizinosaurus, the first depiction of this ridiculous beast that has made any sense to me at all: an upright, long-tongued avian giant sloth with kiwi feathers*, browsing high branches with a prehensile tongue.

The last chapter is hilarious: reconstructions of present-day animals by future paleontologists. The cat resembles a carnivorous iguanoid with mammalian teeth and staring eyes; swans and hornbills are reptilian and slick like yesterday’s dinosaurs; the elephant has immense tusks but no trunk, the python legs, and the baboon is venomous. The most ridiculous, though no more so than some of today’s versions, is a manatee that looks like a vegetarian lion, imaginatively reconstituted from a single bone, standing in its mountain meadow.

Pterosaurs is a serious scientific monograph illustrated by the author, with a thing on the cover that looks like an alien aircraft racing through a Martian sky.

 I am not qualified to judge it, only to read it in awe; I have read all the modern books on these flying creatures, and this is far and away the best. I do believe these are the oddest vertebrates ever to live on earth. They ranged from the size of a tiny songbird to the span at least of a large aircraft, and were astonishingly successful. The science is rigorous, the speculation intelligent, and the illustrations, though Witton is not a great artist, are breath-taking. Either you like this kind of thing or you don’t. But I’ll most likely keep this book until I die. Look at the examples here for a clue.

The last book is is striking in part because it is so familiar; the main difference between it and any bird guide you use is that a lot of these birds are scaled with a human figure, because some of them are pretty big. I have been looking for bland, placid silhouettes of things like Deinonychus and Velociraptor ever since John McLaughlin asked me (almost a dinosaurian eon ago) why the hell every carnivore in prehistory is shown with mouth agape, roaring. And why don’t artists see how bird-like the hand structure of raptorial dinosaurs is? I don’t mean to use the word “bland” as a criticism; what I mean is normal, unexcited. I expect if you were watching these creatures through binoculars and they didn’t know you were there, they would look just like this.

Second from the top is that notorious fowl, Deinonychus herself

*Here is an almost believable version that is more courting pigeon than sloth.

Tattoos, Griffins, Dinosaurs, and Indiana Jones

Our friend Sari in Finland sends this link to some tattooed mummies in the Siberian Altai. Here are a couple more from that tradition, from (I think) a bit further south.

These are mythical “Griffins”, but are probably based on fossils like the Protoceratops, found in Mongolia in the 1920’s by Roy Chapman Andrews, the real- life inspiration for Indiana Jones.

Some of his actual fossils are in the Museum in Ulan Bataar, where we have seen (and touched!) them.

The birth of the Griffin from the bones of a dinosaur is described well in Adrienne Mayor’s The First Fossil Hunters .

Eevil Killer Dino- Birds

(With apologies to Darren).

Walter Hingley sends word of new theories coming out the Museum of the Rockies about the ever- closer similarities becoming apparent between raptorial dinos and modern raptors.

The illo is lurid but wonderful:

Of course some of us have always thought so, notably John McLoughlin. “Washington and Moscow…”


Quote is from McL’s 1983 (!) The Helix and the Sword. The tyrant of a post- apocalyptic civilization has a pair of “reconstituted” Deinonychids described as follows:

“…the Sisters found the tale of the Dinosauria, a lost race of bird-like beings that inhabited dread Earth long before the advent of human beings…they learned of the Deinonychid, a beast that walked on two legs like a bird but that possessed, in place of wings, terrible, three-fingered taloned hands… within the inmost recessed of the mammalian mind… survives an ancient racial memory, a black fear of the bird-beast Dinosauria. Knowing this, the Sisterhood grew for Lothar IV two twin Deinonychids…

“Man-high, smooth-coated with short blackly iridescent feathers, red of eye and each wearing a diamond-studded Regency orange collar, Washington and Moscow were delivered to Lothar IV by the Sisterhood.”

And the names? They are from an ancient document about the destruction of civilization:

“Washington and Moscow have come to blows at last, and with them all of earth must die…for the talons of these beasts are steel and their breath Death itself.”

UPDATE (by Matt):

I wondered when the notion of the velociraptor “killing talon” use might be equated to modern birds of prey.  I was never able to see how the slashing theory made sense, given how well hawks use their feet (grasping, not slashing) and how similar the anatomy looks.  Incedentally, the common depiction of the dino’s inner talon being hinged upward never made sense to me either, but I assume the educated folks know this was so, and why?

As to the above article’s mention that modern raptors “flap” to keep prey beneath them, they do—but not constantly.  Flapping to maintain upright posture is common when the prey is still struggling, but once subdued (and certainly once killed) the hawk’s wings and tail become three parts of a tripod and simply provide leverage for tearing. 

An additional feature of the spread wings and tail (a posture falconers know as “mantling”) is that it hides the prey.  I can see dino feathers serving both needs, the stabilization and the obfuscation, without ever needing to have developed flight.

Here’s a video of my Harris from yesterday to illustrate, tearing meat from a fresh kill.

(Neutrino Cannon says: “Avian phylogeny, when studied long enough, will tempt you to mix headache medication and alcohol.”)