Feathered dinosaurs have been a debate almost as long as the discovery of dinosaurs. While many paleontologists believed that dinosaurs were reptilian, there were some who always insisted that they were less like lizards and turtles and more like birds. Today, we will take a looked at the history of feathered dinosaurs and find out the current consensus on it.
In 1859, Thomas Henry Huxley—a British biologist—suggested that dinosaurs were actually the forefathers of birds. He came to this conclusion after he closely examined a small therapod dinosaur called a Compsognathus (known simply as Compi in the Jurassic Park movies). He noticed that this dinosaur had a bird-like bone structure that was very similar to some proto or first birds. Namely, Archaeopteryx—an early bird that was discovered in limestone in Solnhofen, Bavaria. This early bird is sometimes referred to as Urvogel (a German name which means “first bird”). In 1868, Huxley would go on to publish this suggested link between dinosaurs and birds. However, at the time it was a bit controversial and many scientists disagreed with his assertion. The most prominent of which was Sir Richard Owen who claimed that Archaeopteryx wasn’t a link between dinosaurs and birds, but was actually one of the first birds.
This debate would continue until 1969, when an American paleontologist named John Harold Ostrom examined Deinonychus antirrhopus—a dinosaur he discovered in Montana four years earlier. As he examined the bones, it became quite clear that its bones were directly linked to bird’s bones. He then proposed that birds are indeed direct descendants of dinosaurs. This link would become more pronounced as he examined other therapods and found similar findings.
Ostrom’s work showed that dinosaurs and birds had many similarities between them. Birds and dinosaurs had the same clavicle and breast bone, the same wrists and shoulder blades and the same neck and pubis bones. These findings prompted many scientists to postulate that if dinosaurs and birds shared so many skeletal traits, then they probably shared other traits. Like having feathers, for instance.
After the discovery of many feathered dinosaurs in China in the 1990s, this became a more accepted theory. Most of these fossils were discovered in a Lagerstätte (sedimentary deposit) in Liaoning, China. The specimens were so finely preserved because the area had been subjected to a volcanic explosion about 124 million years ago. This cast a fine deposit of ash over the dinosaur’s bodies and allowed every fine detail to be preserved. This was further proven by the discovery of feathers trapped in amber. It was discovered in 2011 and scientists say that it contains the preserved feathers of dinosaurs from the Cretaceous era.
In 2014, a dinosaur called Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus was unearthed in Siberia. This bipedal herbivore clearly shows that a link exist between dinosaurs and birds. It proves that early feathers were not only on dinosaurs such as Coelurosauria but probably existed on all dinosaurs. If this is true, then it completely reshapes our idea of what dinosaurs should look like. Instead of having reptilian skin, it would be more accurate to display them with feathers. Just as Thomas Henry Huxle postulated almost 160 years ago.