Dinosaurs With Feathers—What if Jurassic Park’s T-Rex Looked Like Big Bird?

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The much-delayed Jurassic Park 4 sequel was delayed again early this week, and it’s tempting to imagine that animal science might be the reason. (Okay, tempting and really, really stupid, but indulge me for a bit.) This lucrative movie franchise dates back 20 years now, to 1993, which is like saying it started somewhere in the Cenozoic as far as our understanding of dinosaurs goes.

A Tyrannosaurus rex that looked like Big Bird might not have audiences wetting their pants in the balcony, or opening their wallets at the box office.

When the original Jurassic Park was still in its first theatrical run, paleontologists were already digging up what has since become a gaudy parade of fossils demonstrating that dinosaurs were in fact frequently tricked out with feathers, feather-like filaments, and even a three-inch-thick coating of “dino fuzz.”

Universal Pictures grudgingly acknowledged this new science when it released Jurassic Park III in 2001. Like an anxious parent in the punk rock era, it allowed Velociraptor to flaunt a miserable little mohawk of about a dozen filaments sprouting out of the top of its head.

But otherwise the franchise has conformed to the stereotype of dinosaurs as scaly, naked, red-eyed monsters. And for an obvious reason: A Tyrannosaurus rex that looked like Big Bird might not have audiences wetting their pants in the balcony, or opening their wallets at the box office. So back in March, Colin Trevorrow, tapped as the latest director in the series, tweeted: “No feathers. #JP4” 

But maybe now he’s gone back for a rethink.

 

 

Here’s where the fossil evidence currently stands, as outlined by Julia Clarke, a University of Texas paleontologist who is also the author of an article “Feathers Before Flight,” appearing today, May 9, in the journal Science: Paleontologists have been thinking about the connection between dinosaurs and living birds since the discovery of the fossil bird Archaeopteryx back in 1861, and especially since 1970, when John Ostrom at Yale University pointed out the many similarities between bird skeletons and those of the Theropoda dinosaurs, including T. rex and Velociraptor.

The current revolution began in the mid-1990s, when theropod dinosaur fossils with feathers and filaments began pouring out of northeastern China, where the evidence had been beautifully preserved in ashy lake beds from the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous.

Even more strangely, a few years later, a big, plodding Triceratops relative turned up with feather bristles on its tail. (Some holdouts wanted to argue, says Clarke, that the fossilized bristles were from a plant “that had been crushed under its butt.”)  That pushed the origin of feathers much farther back in time, since Triceratops belongs to the Ornithiscia, a group that split off from the rest of the dinosaur line tens of millions of years before the bird-like Theropoda.   

Soon after, in 2009, multiple specimens from earlier ornithiscians came lurching up out of the lakebeds with feather-like filaments on big swaths of their bodies. And paleontologists began to realize, says Clarke, that “this is not an outlier. In fact, it looks like maybe all Dinosauria had filaments on some part of their bodies.”

Finally, just last year, Chinese paleontologists presented the world with Yutyrannus huali, a name that means “beautiful feathered tyrant.” This T. rex relative measured 30 feet in length, weighed more than 3,000 pounds—and had feathers up to eight inches long on its body. 

Hello, Universal Pictures?

Richard Prum, an ornithologist and feather expert at Yale University, says it should not be too surprising that dinosaurs might have intermittently sprouted and lost various feathery ornaments. Modern birds also have a knack for novel displays. Wild turkeys, for instance, not only have an assortment of odd fleshy snoods, wattles, and spurs, but most males, and many females, also sport what’s called a “turkey beard,” a nine-inch-long tassel of black hair-like growth sprouting from the middle of the breast. “And I could go on and one with birds that have weird stuff growing out of their skin.” Dinosaurs as a group likewise “have skin which fosters the evolution of structural complexity and novelty.”

Paleontologists now debate whether early dinosaur feathers and filaments evolved for thermoregulation, camouflage, or display. Prum believes that at least one key development ocurred as a means of ornamentation that functioned, as it does for modern birds, for social and sexual selection. 

The evolution of early filaments into downy tufts makes sense for heat retention, especially in juveniles, he says, but the further evolution into a broad flat surface like a modern feather is a puzzle, at least in the absence of flight. “So what would a plane give you in the way of rain repulsion or heat retentions better than a tuft? Not a whole helluva lot.  But a plane gives you a coherent surface on which you can display pigments and pigment patterns. Think of the difference between the appearance of a duckling and a duck, or a chick and a chicken. So one of the things that I’ve hypothesized is that the planar feather gives you a two-dimensional surface that functions literally like a canvas on which you can then paint colors, and what I like about this is that beauty, and the appreciation of beauty, precedes the evolution of flight.” Altogether, it adds up to a vision of dinosaurs, with all their feathers on, that are much more like familiar living animals, and much less like flesh-crazed monsters. 

Is it possible to make creatures that are covered with feathers sufficiently terrifying? Hitchcock did it, in his 1963 horror movie The Birds. So far, though, the people responsible for the Jurassic Park franchise aren’t budging.

But here is a thought so terrifying that only a scientist (or maybe a Hollywood publicist) could dream it up: What if, while the current production is on hold, dinosaur fanatics worldwide were to start a popular movement demanding that their movie dinosaurs have feathers? An army of elementary school kids gnashing their teeth as they march, zombie-like, on Universal Pictures might just be enough to bring about a dinosaur movie that actually pays attention to the science.

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Richard Conniff is the author of seven books, including his latest, The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth. He has won a National Magazine Award, a Gerald Loeb Award, and a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship. His articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and other publications. He has written and presented television shows for networks including the National Geographic Channel, TBS, and the BBC. TakePart.com