Sunday, 23 September 2012

Feathered Dinosaurs Drive Creationists Crazy

The dinosaurs of our childhood aren’t around anymore. The sluggish, swamp-bound pea-brains that haunted museum halls and trundled through picture books have been eviscerated by agile, hot-blooded, and, often, feathery dinosaurs that more accurately reflect what Tyrannosaurus rex and kin were actually like. What’s more, thanks to a heap of lovely fossils, we now know that even the most fearsome of the tyrant dinosaurs were closely related to the avian dinosaurs—the birds—that flit around our backyards today.
Not everyone is pleased with the dramatic dinosaur makeover. In “How Science Ruined Everything,” io9’s Esther Inglis-Arkell said, “Dinosaurs used to be cool, feathers came in, and now it’s like, they’re going to ruffle their plumage when they come after me, and that is not scary.” It’s not surprising that the new imagery of enfluffed dinosaurs makesVelociraptor and company seem more like chickenosaurs than the monsters we grew up with. I used to hate fluffy dinosaurs, too. When feathery dinosaurs started to appear in museum shops and poorly-rendered fuzzballs strutted through basic-cable documentaries, I mourned the loss of the reptilian monsters I once knew. But when I dug into why dinosaur depictions have changed so radically, I came away with a new appreciation of dinosaur feathers.
Paleontologists have uncovered scores of fluffy, fuzzy, bristly, and otherwise spectacularly-adorned dinosaur species throughout the group’s family tree. Feathers weren’t meant for flight from the start; at first they were adaptations for insulation and display—for showing off. By comparing the microscopic features of dinosaur feathers with those of modern birds, paleontologists are answering one of the most perplexing dinosaur mysteries: What color were they? (Some were iridescent blue; some were black and white like a magpie; and some had rust-colored stripes along their tails.) We can finally start to explore the beauty of the dinosaur palette, something I was told as child would be totally impossible. I’ll trade evolutionary secrets for slightly silly dinosaurs any day.

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