Jurassic World’s dinosaurs exposed

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Dinosaurs, our scaly friends that ruled the Earth in a time before the computer. They’ve inspired generations of school children. But, have you considered that many may not have looked the way they’re portrayed? Think feathers. The first bird-like dinosaurs were discovered long ago, and we now have ample evidence that many more were feathered. Yet dinosaurs in the media are nothing short of naked.

Life restoration Zhenyuanlong suni, depicted using its wings in a threat display.
Life restoration Zhenyuanlong suni, depicted using its wings in a threat display.

Jurassic World’s famous velociraptors are a key example of screenplay falling foul of fact. A new species of raptor, Zhenyuanlong suni, discovered this year in Liaoning, China, adds to the body of data that confirms raptors had feathers. Fossils of the five-foot long dinosaur show complex feather structures on both the tail and wings. The paleontologist responsible for this discovery, Dr Steve Brusatte, called it on Spielberg: “The movies have it wrong – this is what velociraptor would have looked like.”

Placing feathers onto raptors has significant implications for other species. It incites rebellion from established norms. Other dinosaurs are also likely to have once wagged feathers under the prehistoric sun.

The first fossilized feathers found belong to Archaeopteryx. The original specimen is on display in Treasures at the Natural History Museum – well worth a look. It revealed that birds had in fact first evolved through divergence from dinosaurs, placing the first appearance of feathers firmly within the dinosaur lineage.

Did all dinosaurs have feathers?

The first feathers erupted from dinosaur scales at least 160 million years ago, but potentially much earlier. Kulindadromeus zabakitalicus, a four-and-a-half-foot long dinosaur that walked on two legs, is a cornerstone in the argument that all dinosaurs had feathers.

Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Science used this species to suggest that “the common ancestor of all dinosaurs had feathers.” Sinosauropteryx puts further wind into this argument’s sails. This 135 million-year-old dinosaur displays some of the first known feathers – simple and filament-like.

The fossil of Sinosauropteryx shows some of the earliest protofeathers.
The fossil of Sinosauropteryx shows some of the earliest protofeathers.

Faced with feather functionality, however, this theory falls to its knees. Modern birds use feathers for warning and sexual displays. It stands to reason that dinosaurs could have used them in the same fashion.

The first feathers likely appeared to assist in thermoregulation, and were later co-opted for sexual displays and, eventually, flight. These more advanced feathers would have probably appeared in the theropod lineage, a group of small, terrestrial, bipedal and carnivorous dinosaurs, like Kulindadromeus.

“Data does not point to a feathered ancestor for all of [the dinosaurs]”, says Dr Nicholàs Campione, dinosaur anatomy expert at Uppsala University, Sweden.

Larger dinosaurs would not have strictly required feathers for insulation, as a reduced surface-area-to-volume ratio helps retain heat more easily. Therefore they might have never had them or secondarily lost them as they increased in size.

Indeed, the dinofluff concept has recently got a little out of control: “People have become quite enthusiastic about putting feathers on all sorts of dinosaurs,” adds Dr Campione.

People have become quite enthusiastic about putting feathers on all sorts of dinosaurs

So, dinosaurs first evolved from reptiles, which have no feathers. The ancestor of all dinosaur groups is unlikely to have possessed any plumage. It’s far more probable that feathers arose with the divergence of theropods. Nonetheless, although feathers were not likely to be found on all dinosaurs, it is certain that they were present on far more of them than previously considered, and certainly more than the media portrays.

How did Jurassic World get it so wrong? Although the other Jurassic Park films can be excused, the newly found species Zhenyuanlong suni puts the presence of plumage on raptors, at the least, beyond question. Yet, in the film they remain ‘naked’.

The film’s technical advisor, paleontologist Jack Horner, wanted to put feathers on the raptors. Despite Horner’s advice, Colin Trevorrow, director of Jurassic World, rejected the scientific evidence due to its interference with stereotypes. Raptors in the Jurassic Park saga were always large and featherless – tampering with this ‘design’ that the public has come to know and love would be a bad marketing idea.

We simply do not know exactly where the feathers would be on all species implicated, or what colouration they would possess. It is not inconceivable that T-rex could be speckled with pink, fluffy tufts of feathers. It would look a bit like a mutant furby. This would somewhat devalue the monster factor.

Okay, maybe a pink, fluffy T-rex is a bit tall, but you get the idea. Where does it end?

Photographs: Emily Willoughby (Wikimedia Commons), Sam Ose/Olai Skjaervoy (Flickr)

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