I have a confession to make: I’ve been writing regular science columns for the News for two years now and while I’ve written on many things that interest me, I have yet to write about my first scientific love: dinosaurs!
I not-so-secretly look for opportunities to write about them, but have always opted not to do so for two reasons: I don’t want to sound like a five year old and I’ve never had the good fortune to be writing immediately after a major dino discovery. Thankfully, this situation can finally be rectified. As all dinosaur enthusiasts and little kids know, a giant feathered dinosaur, a relative of the T. Rex, was discovered recently. A study published earlier this month found that the dinosaur, the largest feathered animal ever, lived over one hundred million years ago in modern day China.
Despite going against the traditional depiction of dinosaurs as scaly lizard monsters (Tyrannosaurus Rex means tyrant lizard king), feathered dinosaurs are not a new discovery. Archeaopteryx, a weird looking flying feathered dinosaur that may be the “first” bird was discovered over a century ago. At first, many scientists dismissed the idea that birds were descendants of dinosaurs. However, there are now over thirty known feathered dinosaurs, most of which were determined to have feathers based on fossil impressions, and the evolutionary link is becoming clearer.
But in spite of this — and even as a fan of all things dinosaur — I admit it’s been difficult to envision the existence of large feathered dinosaurs. And actual paleontologists tend to agree; before this discovery, fossil evidence of feathers had only been found on smaller dinosaurs or baby dinosaurs. This recent paper changes all that. Yutyrannus huali was smaller, more flamboyant, and covered in feathers but definitely a cousin of the famous T. Rex. The feathers were long and bristly, but would not have enabled Yutyrannus to fly (a flying Tyrannosaur is pretty mind-boggling to think about). The study speculated that the feathers might have helped keep Yutyrannus warm or may have been used for display, functions that feathers serve for many modern day birds. Excitingly, the research team is now attempting to figure out what colors the feathers were to see if the latter hypothesis might make sense.
So aside from being awesome, how does this feathery Tyrannosaur fit into the big picture? It is yet another piece of evidence in an already strong argument for the link between birds and dinosaurs, but Yutyrannus may also teach us about the evolution of feathers. Primitive dinosaurs had fuzzier feathers, like those of modern baby birds. It seems that as dinosaurs evolved, so did feathers. In learning more about feathered dinosaurs, we will also learn more about our feathered contemporaries.
Finally, there is a long-standing debate over whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded or cold-blooded. The latter view fits nicely into the lizard-like picture of dinosaurs, but there is an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that dinosaurs were in fact warm-blooded, like us. Yutyrannus seems to have lived in a cold climate and if its feathers were insulation, it could be an example of a warm-blooded dinosaur. The authors of the study suggested that other Tyrannosaur family members that lived in warmer climates would have been scaly and not “cold-adapted” like Yutyrannus. It will be interesting to see if there is significant variability between the physiology of Yutyrannus and that of its closest relatives.
So now that I’ve finally revealed both my pro-dinosaur agenda and my inner child on paper, I will go watch Jurassic Park (again) and try not to laugh as I imagine the T. Rex prowling around replete with feathers.