fossil feathers

This will take some real adjusting.

Paleontologists have come up with recent discoveries suggesting that all dinosaurs were actually feathered creatures, and that present-day birds are not distant relatives of the dinosaurs, but direct survivors of the creatures that dominated the Earth until the end of the Cretaceous era 65 million years ago.

I remember the time 35 years ago (before the film Jurassic Park) when scientists shocked the world by saying that dinosaurs were not lumbering beasts that dragged their tails, but quick-moving creatures that used their extended tails in a balancing-act every bit as remarkable as the upright posture of early man.

Our conceptions of what the dinosaurs actually were have gone through many permutations since Richard Owen reconstructed dinosaurs for the first time on a large scale for the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1854 in London. These sculptures, which popularized the view of dinosaurs as “thundering lizards,” can still be seen today, and immortalize a very early stage in our perception of dinosaurs.

After Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, much of the focus of paleontology shifted to understanding evolutionary paths and evolutionary theory. The late 19th century was dominated by the well-publicized “Bone Wars” between Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh; dinosaurs were not yet ingrained in culture because the knowledge was still so incomplete. Marsh, although a pioneer of skeletal reconstructions, did not support putting mounted skeletons on display, and derided the Crystal Palace sculptures. Yet the period saw a tremendous expansion in paleontological activity, especially in North America.

The trend continued into the 20th century with additional regions of the Earth being opened to systematic fossil collection, as demonstrated by a series of important discoveries in China near the end of the 20th century. Since 1980, when Luis Alvarez and his son Walter discovered the KT Boundary (a sedimentary layer found all over the world and containing concentrations of iridium, a substance that is extremely rare in the earth’s crust but abundant in asteroids,  suggesting that an asteroid struck the earth) , paleontology saw a renewed interest in mass extinctions and their role in the evolution of life on Earth.

Scientists have recently discovered a freakish, birdlike species of dinosaur—11 feet long, 500 pounds, with a beak, no teeth, a bony crest atop its head, murderous claws, prize-fighter arms, spindly legs, a thin tail and feathers sprouting all over the place. Officially, it’s a member of a group of dinosaurs called oviraptorosaurs. Unofficially, it’s the “Chicken From Hell.” At least, that’s the nickname the scientists have been using.

A couple days ago a paleontologist and writer named Michael Balter appeared on PRI’s The World. Balter says there’s already a consensus among scientists that birds are dinosaurs, but a new find in Siberia raises questions about when dinosaurs started becoming birds. Many scientists are now saying that dinosaurs always had feathers.

“Just how deep does ‘birdiness’ go in evolutionary terms?” he asked. (“Birdiness” is a term Balter coined to describe the bird-like properties found in many dinosaur remains.) “The new discovery indicates that birdiness really probably arose very, very early in dinosaur evolution,” he said.

Here is the radio broadcast if you want to hear the interview for yourself.

Living in this place where the ancient past seems like it could have been just yesterday, I think a lot about early life on Earth. As large birds of prey soar on the winds which dominate Estrella Vista, I think of birds as being much more robust than their city-slicker cousins from my youth. They make me think that I have been living with dinosaurs every day.

That’s quite an adjustment from what I used to believe.


Groove of the Day

Listen to John Williams conducting a performance of the “Jurassic Park Theme Song”


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