Confirmation of Feathers On A Dinosaur?

Image of a remarkable feathered fossil preserved in Amber.  (from the paper being discussed)

Image of a remarkable feathered fossil preserved in Amber. (from the paper being discussed)

At university, I was taught (as definitive fact) that the scales on reptiles slowly evolved into feathers. While you can still find this idea in popular literature, serious evolutionists no longer suggest it, because there is simply too much evidence to the contrary. Most evolutionists today suggest that feathers, scales, and hair all evolved from a common ancestral structure. I am sure that if serious scientists are still discussing flagellate-to-philosopher evolution in 50 years, there will be yet another idea of how these structures evolved.

Because evolutionists no longer think that feathers evolved from scales, the currently-fashionable thing to teach as definitive fact is that at least some (if not all) dinosaurs had feathers. The problem is that solid evidence to back up this “fact” has been sorely lacking. There are some dinosaur fossils that give hints of feathers, but there are alternate interpretations of what those hints mean. There are other fossils that clearly show feathers, but it’s not clear the fossils are of dinosaurs.

Now all that has changed, at least according to some sources, because of a recently-reported fossil. The remarkable specimen (pictured above) is part of a tail that has been encased in amber. The amber has preserved both the bones in the tail and the feathers that covered it, giving paleontologists a superb sample to analyze. While the results of the analysis are not conclusive, I do think that they add to the case that at least some dinosaurs had feathers.

The paper reporting the analysis is open-access, so you can read it if you can sort through all the jargon. If nothing else, you can see the excellent pictures of the specimen. Essentially, the fossil clearly contains at least two vertebrae that are very similar to what you find in the tails of dinosaurs. Because of the remains of preserved tissue, it is hard to distinguish more individual vertebrae, but based on the size of the two that can be distinguished, it is thought that this specimen preserves eight full vertebrae and part of a ninth. Based on the structure of the fossil, the authors think that the specimen contains only part of the tail, and they estimate that the full tail might have contained more than 25 vertebrae.

Why is this important? Because while there are birds with bony tails, they typically have less than 10 vertebrae. If this creature had more than 25, most paleontologists would say it clearly isn’t a bird. I am not a paleontologist, but I question that idea. While most bony-tailed birds have very few vertebrae in their tails, there are at least two fossils of what I think are clearly birds, and each of them has at least 20 vertebrae.

Archaeopteryx, for example, is clearly a bird, at least as far as I am concerned. It has all the important characteristics of birds, and it could fly. In my mind, that makes it a bird. You can argue that it is some kind of transitional fossil, but I find the evidence for that idea to be very weak. It has at least 20 vertebrae in its tail. Jeholornis is another example of a fossil bird with more than 20 vertebrae in its tail.

So it’s possible that this fossil belonged to a long-tailed bird like Archaeopteryx or Jeholornis. The problem with that idea, however, is the feathers themselves. The authors make the strong case that if the animal was covered in feathers like the ones preserved in the fossil, it would not be capable of flight. Thus, if this is a bird, it seems it was a flightless bird, which would be quite different from Archaeopteryx and Jeholornis.

So is this fossil from an ancient long-tailed bird or a feathered dinosaur? The honest answer is that nobody knows. It seems to me that there are at least three possibilities: It might be from a feathered dinosaur. It might be from a flightless, long-tailed ancient bird. It might be from a long-tailed bird, but the flight feathers didn’t get preserved for some reason. Hopefully, more fossils will be found to help us determine which of those possibilities (if any) is the correct one.

Based on what we know right now, however, I would say that the most obvious interpretation of the fossil is that it came from a feathered dinosaur. Thus, this makes me more inclined to believe that at least some dinosaurs had feathers. Now please understand that these are real, fully-developed feathers. They aren’t the “dino fuzz” that some paleontologists believe covered some dinosaurs. There are serious problems with that idea.

16 Comments

  1. Brett Estep says:

    Jay, recently converted Creationist (I’m pretty sure since he said “converted to special creation”) PH.D Paleontologist Gunter Bechly of the discovery institute on his Facebook page, sees comparisons with modern birds or Emu potentially but doesn’t dismiss the possibility of it being a dinosaur either. This thing isnt far from settled. I expect as usual as all other claims, this will eventually be swept on the rug. This will almost certainly be challenged by other evolutionists in the literature or just forgotten.

    Do you think this will be, or is, a problem for Creationists?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I don’t see feathered dinosaurs as a problem for the creationist view. There is nothing in the creationist model that requires dinosaurs to have scales. They could have scales, feathers, or hair, or even some combination of those characteristics.

      1. Brett Estep says:

        Jay, I agree with you on the creation model. Though if you want evolutionary, atheistic dogma, this is beautiful ammo for them to try too give validity to the dino-bird transition. It makes it awkward for us in my opinion.

        Anyhow, I had a debate with someone already on this find and they claimed this proves that iron proves soft tissue and other finds like this. Does this claim about this find have any validity? Or even a hint in the original papers?

        Jay, also don’t forget that amber beautifully preserved over millions of years is apparently a problem for the old earth view since it should be darkened and chemically degraded or gone mostly by now as Brian Thomas of ICR points out.

        http://www.icr.org/article/how-did-marine-organisms-end-up-tree-sap

        http://www.icr.org/article/fantastic-australian-amber-supports

        http://www.icr.org/article/scan-amber-trapped-spider-shows-recent

        http://www.icr.org/article/fossilized-gecko-fits-creation-model

        1. Jay Wile says:

          I disagree that feather dinosaurs are awkward for creationists, Brett. I think transitional forms from dinosaur to bird would be awkward, as well as transitional feathers. However, whether dinosaurs had scales, feathers, hair, or some combination doesn’t affect the creationist view of things.

          I think the person you had a debate with doesn’t understand what he or she is talking about. The paper clearly says that they see the presence of iron as evidence that the tissues are original to the animal. They don’t see it as a preservative. Also, Schweitzer’s idea that iron somehow preserves tissue has several problems (see here and here).

  2. John D. says:

    Darwinian evolution of the barbed feather should have taken millions upon millions of years and left myriad traces. Yet all we find are fully formed feathers. It’s interesting to note also that no alternate / vestigial feather forms are found among living birds.

    If evolutionists could provide a smooth transitional fossil record for feather evolution then I might be forced to reconsider my thinking.

    If I were an evolutionist I would definitely have to be of the “conscious genome” variety. The subconscious operators of even the most primitive organisms respond to the very subtle changes in environment. If reptiles did truly evolve flight – then it would have to have been the goal of the genome. This would indicate the adaptive power and cognisance of the genome is FAR greater that we have anticipated. It’s a little eerie just thinking about it.

    At any rate, I’m still very much a Creationist. So much so that I have promised someone that I would find them a Jurassic bat. Now this may have been hasty, and I haven’t found anything as of yet…

    That being said, I have two questions for you Dr. Wile…

    1. Do you think I will I find one?
    2. When’s your next string of availability for digging?.. I’m thinking southern Arizona, just outside of Tombstone.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I really don’t know if you will find a Jurassic bat, John, but even if you did, that wouldn’t change a fervent evolutionist’s mind. When fossils are found “too early” in the fossil record, evolutionists have several choices. (1) They can say the fossils aren’t what they appear to be, (2) They can redate the rocks in which the fossils are found, or (3) the evolutionary story can be changed to allow for earlier evolution. This is how evolution is kept “consistent” with the fossil record.

      As far as digging, I think I will leave that to the younger crowd! I have trouble just picking weeds in my yard!

  3. Jim says:

    Jay, I’m glad you posted because I’ve been waiting for your insight on a particular Aig paper that seems to be up your alley with decay rates, carbon 14, and the old or young earth debate.

    https://answersingenesis.org/age-of-the-earth/do-varves-tree-rings-radiocarbon-measurements-prove-old-earth/

    Thoughts, agreements or disagreements?

    I personally think it’s a excellent piece of creation research in alot of ways and in some ways, I disagree.

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Overall, I think the article is sound. Their most important point (which is 100% true) is that the varve counts and carbon-14 dates Davidson and Wolgemuth use are not independent of one another. As a result, the fact that they roughly correlate doesn’t mean anything. Of course they will correlate, since their interpretations depend on many of the same “calibrations.” Also, I strongly agree that Davidson and Wolgemuth are breathtakingly simplistic in their discussion and use of carbon-14 “dates.” I also agree that Davidson and Wolgemuth’s supposed “alternatives” in the creationist model show that they haven’t investigated the creationist view in any meaningful way.

      I disagree with their “digression” into tree-ring analysis, however. First, they dogmatically claim that since the Flood happened about 4,300 years ago, some of the rings on “Methuselah” must be the result of multiple-ring years. To think that we can date the Flood so precisely is naive, at best. Second, they discount tree-ring chronologies based on more than one tree. While there are difficulties with multiple-tree chronologies because master tree ring patterns get difficult to identify (especially in older fossils), some of them are pretty robust. As a result, I am not as quick to dismiss them.

      1. Jim says:

        This has also been a big problem for me in the creationist literature. We don’t “know” when the flood happened. I don’t think we can honestly date the Flood. Bryant Wood, creationist archaeologist, and his staff at http://www.biblearchaeology.org/search.aspx?q=Flood&comment=true
        has said that the flood occurred in 3000 BC. I think the oldest trees that we have out of the pines, is usually in the range of 4,800-4,700 years old and is actually a better date for the flood since it fits with Egyptian chronology since there are some who think the chronology definitely needs revised down about 2-6 hundred years.

        As far as I know the insistence that it’s 4300 years ago is based off of Ussher’s timeline, he had to make certain assumptions about history too come up with that date which is why I’m skeptical of it. Which is why I’m skeptical about all assumptions. No wonder I’m a YEC.

        I do think that the early date of 3000-4700 BC fits archaeology better and since almost all of them have flood stories and traditions, allusions to Babel, I don’t see the problem for the Flood. There needs to be some error bars and some debate about the date more.

        I do think as a Creationist, I see the obvious benefits for the late date of 4400-4200 years ago Jay. 1500-2000 years worth of species existing (if we assume a strictly 6000 years ago origin) is enough time to produce the variation and speciation of what we see the in the fossil record since we have observed these changes occur in our lifetime, more time = more of what we see in the fossil record. 1000 years wouldn’t seem to explain the fossil record as well as the late date from Ussher, where you have ample time.

        The main thing I wonder also from the article is, if the earth is old, should we actually expect trees that have 20,000 rings or 10,000 compared to the 4,000 rings we see that fit nicely with a flood. I’m not sure trees can last that long anyways.

        1. Jay Wile says:

          You are right that the Flood ocurring 4300 years ago is from Ussher. AiG is pretty much wedded to his chronology, which is another thing I disagree with them on. I am not sure why we need to assume a strict 6,000 years ago origin for the earth. That’s also a number which comes from Ussher.

          I would agree that if the earth is ancient, we should see much, much older trees. I am not sure how many rings to expect, because I suspect that all trees have a finite lifespan. Thus, the number of rings in any living tree would be limited by that. As I understand it, however, trees like “Methuselah” are not showing signs of dying. That leads me to believe that the lifespan of such trees is much longer than 4,800+ years. At the same time, I do agree that any age constructed from tree rings is an upper limit, since multiple rings can be produced in a year. Such events are rare, but they do happen.

  4. Tricia Roush says:

    I don’t have problems with feathers on a dinosaur… But, if other things were trapped in this amber too, could they just have been feathers and dinosaur that got trapped in the same amber?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      Based on the scans done, the feathers are attached to the tail. So in this case, it is clear that the feathers belong to the tail.

  5. Anthea says:

    Hello Dr Jay. All right, so there is a feathery dinosaur out there. Also, I am right-handed. Neither of these factoids tells us that dinosaurs evolved into birds. To change a dinosaur into a bird, you would have to change:

    * Heavy solid bones to hollow ones

    * Thick, leathery skin to thinner skin

    * Forearms into wings

    * Metabolism to allow bird to live in various climates, i.e., not so cold-blooded

    * Size and function of organs to allow for flight

    … and, of course, any changes would have to occur in both male and female at the same time on the same continent, so that they could reproduce and make more little transitional dirdies, er binosaurs, er, dinotweety-pies … Given how hard it is for us to find a spouse with 7 billion people on the planet, I don’t reckon much to the chances of two transitional creatures bumping into each other like that.

    Merry Christmas Dr Jay.

    PS Your blog post on “three-parent babies” came in useful yesterday, as it was in the news in the UK. I was able to share your info with my husband.

  6. Vy says:

    I know the tail is the elephant in the room but what about the ants? In the PDF, they’re described as “long-legged sphecomyrmine ants” (pg. 10)

    TalkOrgins has an article on so-called “ant-wasp” wasp -> ant transitional fossil and dates it to ~60 Ma. According to the Wiki article on the trans-fossil:

    They found a large deep red piece of amber embedded in clay containing a number of insects, including some Diptera flies. The approximate age of the fossils dates back to the Cretaceous, 92 million [Darwin] years ago.

    And their article on ants states:

    Ants evolved from wasp-like ancestors in the Cretaceous period, about 99 million years ago and diversified after the rise of flowering plants.

    This fossil OTOH is:

    Here we describe the feathered tail of a non-avialan theropod preserved in mid-Cretaceous (∼99 Ma) amber from Kachin State, Myanmar

    Am I missing something?

    1. Jay Wile says:

      I think you might be. According to this reference, the oldest known ants are supposed to be 100 million years old, so this sample doesn’t seem to be an exception when it comes to ants.

      1. Vy says:

        Thanks for the reference. It seems the claim of the existence of a transitional wasp -> ant fossil is on seriously shaky ground.