Feather Denial

With the reduction of ICR News articles from five a week to three, Brian Thomas has been missing a lot recently. He didn’t comment on the recent hominin finds, for example, nor on the paper in Nature in March attacking the chondritic Earth model, for another. But he has found the time to write an article on that feathered tyrannosauroid, Yutyrannus huali, in One-Ton ‘Feathered’ Dinosaur? And while Uncommon Descent merely went with the Piltdown Man allusion “at this point, we can’t rule out fossil fraud either”, Brian is flat out denying the very existence of the feathers.

Head profile of Yutyrannus, the feathered tyrannosauroid from lower Cretaceous Yixian, based on ELDM V1001, by "Pilsator" from deviantart

He begins by attacking media reporting of the find:

Media reports are buzzing with misleading headlines. Wired Science reported, “Giant Feathered Tyrannosaur Found in China.” Even the technical description, published in Nature, is titled, “A gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China.” Despite these assertions, the fossils’ details show no actual feathers or feather imprints.

But they do, that’s the problem (even despite Brian’s own assertions). Here’s the Wired Science article, while the Nature paper is A gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China. The latter can be read in full here, while you can see the figures in the paper from here, here, and here.

The Christian Science Monitor covered the story, too. The report might lead readers to believe that paleontologists actually found feathers, but they didn’t. Though the title reads, “Dressed to kill: A feathered tyrannosaur is discovered in China,” further into the article the “feathered” status is qualified—these tyrannosaur-like remains sport “feather-like features.” The same article later quoted lead author of the Nature paper, Xing Xu, calling the fibers “simple filaments.”

The Christian Science Monitor article is here. For some strange reason Brian’s own link leads to the second page – he needs to remember to tidy them up.

The Nature text also describes them as “filamentous integumentary [skin] structures.” So are they feathers, feather fibers, unknown fibers, or skin fibers? Answering this correctly is important. If they are not confirmed feathers, then these articles represent more examples of misleading headlines.

Er, Brian – you’re the one who said “skin”. They are as such both “feathers” and “feather fibers”. Misleading headlines or not, Brian is providing misleading quotes by adding in his ‘explanations’ in square brackets. “Integumentary” means covering, and if they’re “filamentous” they are not exactly “skin”. Hair would count, however, but they don’t exactly seem to be that.

Those misled into thinking that the fossil fibers are feathers—when they actually are not—become more susceptible to the lie that dinosaurs evolved into birds. Such a transformation would not have been possible.

His reference for that is his 2009 article Fossil Fibers Befuddle Dinosaur Evolution, about the apparent discovery of a feathered (though not, I don’t think, feathered in the same way and degree) but non-theropod dinosaur. I really do need to go back and go over these old articles… Any way, the Velociraptor had feathers, as did quite a number of other not-very-bird-like dinosaurs. What does Brian make of them?

The famous Chinese dinosaurs probably began rotting as they were transported in Noah’s Floodwaters only 4,500 or so years ago, even as modern carcasses rot. The soluble flesh rotted first, leaving behind more resistant fibers that were then fossilized.

As is the case with other famous claims of Chinese fossil dinosaur “feathers,” these are more straightforwardly interpreted as being the fossilized fragments of partly decayed skin. Researchers compared the fossil fibers to skin filaments from decaying carcasses, and found an excellent match.

Ah, back to Feduccia. We’ve met him before, or rather Brian quoting him to back up his position. The paper he likes to use – and uses here – is Do Feathered Dinosaurs Exist? Testing the Hypothesis on Neontological and Paleontological Evidence from 2005. I’m pretty sure it’s a little out of date by this point.

Feduccia is a proponent of the idea that birds evolved not from theropod dinosaurs, but from a related, non-dinosaur animal. The position is no longer popular, and more recent discoveries of non-bird theropod dinosaurs with clear feathers such as Microraptor have lead him to have to more-or-less say that theropods evolved from Birds – this new fossil isn’t going to help there either. He and his supporters dispute the classification of a number of more primitive structures than what have been found here as protofeathers, claiming them to be collagen fibres. But I doubt that he would be able to dismiss these ones as Brian does on the basis of his earlier experiments. So that’s a ‘no’ to Noah, or at least Brian’s idea of a rotting dinosaur carcass floating down stream. And, judging by the information provided in Cenomanian Last Stand the other week, it seems that B.T. has the conditions needed for fossilisation all wrong.

Brian concludes:

Why would so many headlines report that fossil feathers are present? Scientists themselves are not certain that the filaments are actually feathers. And a better explanation fits.

This is not the first time Brian has outright denied the evidence that a given fossil had feathers. In August of last year, for example, in Feathers Missing from ‘Feathered Dinosaur’ Display, he claimed that the dinosaur Caudipteryx did not have feathers. This could not be further from the truth. This is one of those times when you really can’t tell whether Thomas is being intentionally deceptive or just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Or both.

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9 thoughts on “Feather Denial

  1. “the distribution of the preserved filamentous feathers in the three specimens of Y. huali implies that this taxon had an extensively feathered integument in life”

    From the paper.

    • There’s also the fact that if you look at the articles which have cited the paper disputing the existence of these feathers, many disagree with the idea.

      [some have] interpreted the surrounding structures as degraded dermal collagen tissue (e.g. Feduccia et al. 2005; Lingham-Soliar et al. 2007)….However, it should be emphasized that there is robust evidence supporting the plumulous nature of these structures (e.g. the size and distribution pattern of these structures over the entire body, their preservation as dark carbonized impressions and the discovery of melanosomes within these structures in both basal birds and non-avian theropods; see Currie and Chen 2001; Norell and Xu 2005; Xu et al. 2010a; Zhang et al. 2010).

      From “On the identification of feather structures in stem-line representatives of birds: evidence from fossils and actuopalaeontology”

  2. On 29.9.07 the Answers in Genesis ‘News to Note’ (in an item on Velociraptor so the comment does not stand out) stated “Furthermore, other fossil finds considered to be dinosaur precursors to birds have turned out to be flightless birds similar to ostriches, such as Protarchaeopteryx robusta and Caudipteryx zoui”.

    But, as you show, on 25.8.11 the ICR were claiming (LESS plausibly than AiG by the sound of it): “The Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas is currently running an exhibit called “Chinasaurs” that features dinosaur fossils discovered in China. Some of these fossils supposedly represent transitional species from dinosaurs to birds. But these “feathered dinosaurs” appear to be missing a key feature—namely, the feathers… Caudipteryx did not have a bird’s keel bone or a bird-like beak. And unlike birds, it had hips that permitted free movement of its thighs. Thus, it was most likely a dinosaur, not a bird or a transitional form”.

    It would seem that different YECs, who haven’t even seen the fossils in question first hand but who like to talk out of their backsides, fail to agree with each other – one denies DINOSAUR the other denies FEATHERS. Because a feathered dinosaur might imply evolution – and we can’t have that when we are talking to Christian fundamentalists, can we?

    • The Feduccia idea involves claiming that later theropods with clear feathers are ‘secondarily flightless’ birds, “similar to ostriches.” But by denying said feathers Brian runs counter to the party line, and paints himself into an even less defensible corner.

  3. AiG and the ICR both seemingly doubt that the undoubted dinosaur Yutyrannus had any sort of feathers (even if they were 7 inches long) – and for that they don’t as yet have any support from Feduccia. Other creationists eg Todd Wood (a blog) and Marc Surtees (on the British Centre for Science Education community forum) HAVE agreed ‘feathered dinosaur’ whilst doubting evolution still.

  4. Curiously the line about it being a dinosaur because it “did not have a bird’s keel bone or a bird-like beak” applies quite forcefully to “Archaeopteryx”, as it had neither. Nor did a bunch of enantiornithine birds. Beaks turned up eventually, but many early birds didn’t have them.

  5. China, which also brought us the archaeoraptor fraud:

    “Archaeoraptor Liaoningensis:
    Fake Dinosaur-bird ancestor

    The most recent and perhaps the most infamous evolution frauds was committed in China and published in 1999 in the journal National Geographic 196:98-107, November 1999. Dinosaur bones were put together with the bones of a newer species of bird and they tried to pass it off as a very important new evolutionary intermediate.

    “Feathers For T-Rex?”, Christopher P. Sloan, National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 196, No. 5, November, 1999, pp.99,100,105

    Interesting Quote – “National Geographic has reached an all-time low for engaging in sensationalistic, unsubstantiated, tabloid journalism” Storrs L. Olson, Smithsonian Institution”

  6. I’ve just sent the following email to the ICR:

    http://www.icr.org/article/6770/
    The new hypothesis relates to BACTERIA.
    And there is no obvious and scientific basis for the ICR suggesting,
    on the back of it: “Instead of simple-to-complex, was life’s history
    instead filled with complex-to-simple evolutionary changes such as
    bacteria losing certain genes?”.
    “If evolution describes both the reduction and addition of genes, then
    it really doesn’t describe anything.” Your SENTENCE doesn’t describe
    anything. Natural selection acting on mutations CAN alter gene pools.

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