|Three feathered dinosaurs: the famous dromaeosaurid Velociraptor mongoliensis chases a juvenile oviraptorosaur, Citipati osmolskae. The parent of the latter tries to intervene. Prints of this image are available.|
But I don't want to talk about that
To me, the most surprising aspect of the discussions over JP4's 'No Feathers' has been the commonality of argument from some contributors. Specifically, there is a body of people who seem to strongly dislike the idea of feathery dinosaurs. We're not talking about people ignorant of fossil evidence indicating that feathered Mesozoic dinosaurs were as real as blue sky and gravity, but those people who personally prefer their dinosaurs scaly, irrespective of fossil evidence. Interestingly, these individuals almost always bring up the same reasoning.
- Feathered dinosaurs look stupid
- [linking to some awful tarred-and-feathered reconstruction] "Do we want dinosaurs to look like this?"
- Feathered dinosaurs aren't scary
- Feathered dinosaurs look like giant turkeys/chickens/parrots!
- Feathers equate to bright colours and lurid display structures
Let's start with a possible root cause for Feather Resistance, from deep within the popular characterisation of dinosaurs. Moreso than any other extinct species, dinosaurs are depicted as hardcore 'superanimals'. Ancient, real-world dragons that lived in a turbulent and violent world of volcanoes, sparse, sharp-leaved vegetation and perpetually-hungry predators. We get the impression that our modern fauna wouldn't last two minutes in this time of voracious killer reptiles. If popular depictions of dinosaurs are anything to go by, they were only vulnerable to two things: other dinosaurs, and giant rocks from space: they're that freakin' hardcore. Modern animals, by contrast, struggle when someone redirects a river or we park our cars in the wrong plce. Dinosaurs could take that, and they'd eat your mother just for even suggesting otherwise.
With this in mind, it makes total sense for dinosaurs to have scaly hides. Scales provide tough armour plating. They wrap every dinosaur, big or small, in biker leathers and reinforce their status as the hardcore mofos we expect them to be. This is why we're secretly glad that some dinosaurs are extinct: their enormous power and resilience would be a terrifying force if unleashed in our modern, tranquil world.
|Fossil of the feathered therizinosaur Beipiaosaurus, borrowed from here. Note that, like Sinornithosaurus, below, this fossil shows very avian-like feather contours around the neck.|
Compounding this perceived loss of awesomeness is the removal of mystery surrounding dinosaurs: their feathered hides make them a lot more familiar to our eyes. Scaly, bipedal theropods are unusual to us, and we instinctively recognise them as a strange and alien bauplan unlike anything around today. They confuse some part of our psyche: "they look a bit like birds, but they're kind of reptilian". By contrast, feathery theropods, and large fuzzy animals generally, are well known to all, and many modern birds probably look very similar to their extinct, non-avian ancestors. More convincing reconstructions of feathered maniraptorans converge with animals like roadrunners, emus and corvids so much so that they could be mistaken for these modern species at casual glances. Suddenly, a lot of their mystery is gone. A lot of the appeal with dinosaurs concerns the many unanswered questions we have about their lives and appearance, but if these can be answered - even if only roughly - by pointing at a modern animal, then we'll have satisfied the curiosity of many folks with casual interests in extinct life. Adding feathers doesn't just replace mythical dinosaur badassery with boring-old reality then, but also makes dinosaurs more familiar, and thus more 'boring' to some eyes.
But don't we make all of this up, anyway?
Moving away from imaginary concepts of dinosaurs towards efforts to reconstruct them in art, we may encounter our second factor in Feather Resistance: a lack of awareness about the use of fossil evidence to tightly constrain reconstructions of extinct species. A lot of folks seem to think that palaeontologists and palaeoartists make up dinosaur appearance as they go along, perhaps with a few scraps of evidence to point them in the right direction, but otherwise working within almost limitless possibilities. In such a scenario, personal choice about attributes like integument would play a large role. Of course, this could not be further from the truth. A good palaeoartist reconstructs extinct animals as rigorously as possible, with as much information as possible, using increasingly good fossil data and phylogenetic analyses to inform animal proportions, musculature, integuments, environments and behaviour. A lot of folks would be very surprised at how much data can be obtained from one skeleton nowadays, and how much of that can be used to inform a reconstruction. It doesn't seem unfair to say that our dinosaur knowledge is advanced enough now that we can make some inferences about the integument possibilities for most major groups, so there's normally good reason behind the choice for scales, quills and feathers on different dinosaur reconstructions. Much of this work is probably unknown to much of the public, however, who may think that feathers are just fashionable possibilities in a sea of poorly-constrained, speculative artworks.
The learning curve
The points made above may not matter so much, however, if dinosaur PR had convinced us that feathered dinosaurs were still cool, even in their new threads. The need for reconstructing extensive feathering on at least some non-avian theropods became inescapable in the mid-nineties thanks to discoveries of Chinese dinosaur fossils surrounded by fuzzy halos of feathers. As such, feathered dinosaurs have been a mainstay of palaeoart for around 15 years at least. With hindsight, I think we can say that it has taken a little practise to produce convincing-looking reconstructions of these animals. I'll go so far to say that many of the first reconstructions of feathered non-avian theropods were pretty awful, and certainly not reflective of the integumentary details preserved in the then-new Chinese fossils. Clinging to the once-fashionable concept of shrink-wrapping, many depictions of dromaeosaurs sported lank, greasy-looking feathers draped over painfully skinny bodies, while others wore veritable explosions of fibres and fluff; big, shaggy masses of feathers that drowned the contours of the animals beneath them. Something of a halfway house between these extremes was struck when patches or rows of feathers were set across a primarily scaly body. Interestingly, whichever of these three approaches was used, dinosaur heads were frequently left scaly, despite good evidence that they shouldn't be (check out the feathers on the face of the fossil below, for instance).
|Sinornithosaurus, one of the first dromaeosaur fossils known to show extensive feathering across its entire body. Note the very avian-like feather contours around the neck and the feathers adorning the snout. Image borrowed from here.|
With this in mind, it's not surprising that many laymen think that feathered theropods look silly. Many of the more memorable and longest-lived reconstructions of them are, and perhaps these are what most folks think of when the words 'feathered dinosaur' come to mind. Scaly theropods undeniably looked more intuitively plausible, not to mention more aesthetically pleasing, than a lot of the weird imagery once thrown about by palaeoartists. A definitive move away from this craziness can be seen in more recent works, resulting in much more convincing depictions of feathered Mesozoic theropods (check out those by Emily Willoughby, John Conway and Julius Csotonyi for examples). These chaps have clearly gone back to the fossil data, looked at the mechanics and proportions of feathers in modern birds and abandoned overly-dynamic poses to recreate feathered dinosaurs which look like genuine, real animals. Unfortunately, displacing the prevalence of earlier, zanier reconstructions of feathered theropods with more plausible models may not be easy, even with these new artworks. By necessity, the newer, more realistic restorations of feathered dinosaurs are considerably more subdued and muted than the crazier reconstructions that preceded them, so may not make comparable impressions in public minds. Even if these new styles of feathered theropod reconstruction become the norm, we may find it hard to step out of the oddly-shaped shadow set by earlier restorations of feathered theropods.
The freakishness of some feathered theropod reconstructions may explain why some folks immediately imagine giant, outlandishly dressed birds - parrots, turkeys and the like - when feathered dinosaurs are mentioned. A lot of those brightly coloured reconstructions do resemble these birds more than any others, and their overly dynamic, unusual postures only strengthen these comparisons to birds considered to be a little stupid (poultry) or capable of silly behaviours (parrots). I wonder if we could go as far to say that, when used with tight shrink wrapping, the sparse feathering of some reconstructions are also reminiscent of plucked bird carcasses seen in supermarkets? Either way, although palaeontologists may argue that raptors, ratites and shoebills are ideal kindling for imagining Mesozoic animals, these animals may not have been invoked enough in widely-seen reconstructions to have shaped public imagination. And of course, imagining giant chickens instead of giant birds of prey contributes further to the undermining of dinosaurs as creatures to be idolised and feared.
Real dinosaurs vs. celebrity dinosaurs
Much of what we've covered here could be summed up as a bit of a PR fumble for feathered theropods, and it may seem that a concerted effort by artists and scientists could sway public opinion in coming years. This could be the case, but it will be a bit of an uphill struggle. A century of popular dinosaur books, movies and documentaries have cemented the appearance of some species so solidly that, for some, they have become definitive, final versions. This contrasts markedly with the way that palaeoart traditionally works. Palaeoart varies with developments in scientific thinking, changes in palaeoartistic fashions and with the individual flourishes of different artists, so it's hard to crystallise definitive concepts of given species. But a popular film, TV programme or book can set the appearance and behaviour of its creatures by making them cool, memorable and iconic, and then spawn a host of imitators which solidify the mould further.
|The quill knobs on the ulna of Velociraptor, betraying the presence of large, vaned feathers along its forearms. Image borrowed from here.|
The upshot of these attitudes is that palaeontologists hoping to make feathery theropods popular, and particularly with television and movie producers, have to win over fans of recognisable and marketable characters. These constitute a much greater revenue source than palaeontologists and hold a lot more sway with media production companies than scientists ever will. This is where the points made above combine to one critical mass: the push for wider depiction of feathered dinosaurs is being perceived through shonky reconstructions of feathered dinosaurs, and is arguing for the removal of perceived awesomeness in well known and loved characters. Palaeontologists singing the praises of feathers are being greeted with the same warmth as someone suggesting that we swap the head of Geiger's Alien creature with that of Alf, or that the next Terminator assassin would look better in a turtle neck and slacks instead of biker leathers.
So, where does this leave us?
The irony of so much Feather Resistance being exposed in the light of Jurassic Park 4 is that a major movie featuring well-rendered, plausible reconstructions of feathered dinosaurs could silence a lot of feather critics. This needs to happen eventually. Feathered Mesozoic dinosaurs are fact. Feathered coelurosaurs, the dinosaurs people are interested beyond all others, are fact. Products and people that do not embrace this are at least 20 years out of date, and, so far as I can see, there is no good reason for staying so far behind the times. Naive concepts of dinosaurs and their world, ignorance of palaeoartistic methods, a dislike of change and the fumbling of early attempts to bring feathered dinosaurs to life are poor reasons to keep popular depictions of dinosaurs decades out of date. How long will it take for people to relinquish the idea that their favourite dinosaurs were scaly, fantastic dragons and accept them, and their feathers, for what they actually were?