18 September 2011

Dinosaur feathers

Dating from the Cretaceous, and preserved in Canadian amber.  Wow.
"The least spectacular of these specimens have either single fibers or tufts of fibers coming from a common base," said Wolfe. "They've basically been inferred to exist from a theoretical model of feather evolution, but have never before been documented in the flesh, as it were."
More photos and some commentary at Wired Science.


  1. I'm not as impressed by this as I wanted to be. If they were older they'd be more impressive and informative. By the late Cretaceous birds had been around for about 85 million years. For a little perspective, that's 20 million years longer than the time between the last dinosaurs and now. Birds had been well-established and had begun branching into modern groups by the middle Cretaceous. They can't be that great an indicator of the evolution of feathers because of the massive time for divergence from the first feathered dinosaur. All they can really show is that something other than known birds had feathers at that time. If they are from dinosaurs that's interesting, but only about as informative as comparing chimps to humans to understand divergence. These are no more the ancestor of modern feathers than a living chimp is the ancestor of humans. Far less even. We've only been separate for about 5 million years.

    I'm surprised Richard Dawkins' website made as big a deal about it as it did, since he's so careful to toe lines of divergence as opposed to ancestry.

  2. I think you're misunderstanding a few things. No [vertebrate] paleontologist ever expects to find direct ancestors. The sampling just isn't that great. It doesn't matter that they're Late Cretaceous- they still show the steps of feather evolution in the same way that monotremes today still lay eggs, showing how all mammals had ancestors which did. A plesiomorphic state is still plesiomorphic no matter how long it's retained.
    Having 3D preservation of these steps is much nicer than looking at a carbon smear. So much more structural detail can be made out. The newspaper articles don't do the original journal article justice in demonstrating the importance of that.

  3. That is amazing, simply put I was raised in the early ninties, when Jurrassic Park was in theaters and The Land Before Time used to play intermitantly on tv time to time, and every school had a large collection of dinosaur books to ponder over. I still find the subject of dinosaurs to be interesting, and everytime I hear something new about them, well I need to look it up.

    How amazing, I would never think of dinosaur feathers being found in amber. Interestingly they do remind me of the feathers of an emu somewhat.

  4. Lady Aritê gunê Akasa, I'm not misunderstanding anything. I'm just disappointed that they're as 'recent' as they are. They are interesting in their own right, if you're interested in dinosaurs (which I'm not terribly), but they're not highly informative transitional forms and it bothers me that they're being portrayed that way.

  5. But they are informative and maintain the ancestral form that was transitional for birds, despite their age (it's just retained on a separate line). The newspaper articles don't even mention the coiled bird feathers showing adaptations to water similar to a modern grebe's. Pick up the original paper if you want all the details.
    Either way, science journalism often stresses the importance of the wrong aspect because the actual importance of a find isn't "sexy" enough for the journalists.


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