As the guy at National Geographic responsible for keeping track of a bunch of scientists, I never know who or what I'll engage with each day. It could be dinosaurs for breakfast, poisonous frogs for lunch, and Inca gold for dinner. I'll post the highlights here as I encounter them. If you have questions or comments about archeology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, or any Society-funded projects, this is the place to post. I'll check things out and invite experts to weigh in on postings from time to time.
Feathers for Velociraptor
Posted Sep 30,2007

Oldvelprototrood0139lr Greg Paul's prescient illustration of a Velociraptor with quilled arm feathers (on the left)  was prepared almost twenty years ago. © Gregory S. Paul

Isn’t it interesting that a high-power trio of scientists, Alan Turner of Columbia University , Pete Makovicky  of the Field Museum (an NGS grantee) and  Mark Norell of the American Musuem of Natural History have now identified quill knobs on a Velociraptor ulna (see Science )?

It was not so long ago that such a claim would have generated an outcry from a vocal minority of scientists who opposed the hypothesis of a bird-dinosaur link like Storrs Olson of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History and Alan Feduccia of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but I haven’t heard a peep, have you? I remember that Feduccia threatened to cancel his subscription to National Geographic he was so incensed with an article we published in 1998 on the dinosaurian origin of birds. I don’t know if he ever followed through on that, but when National Geographic published an article including “Archaeoraptor,” a fossil dino-bird that turned out to be a faked composite of two skeletons, he and his other colleagues of like mind screamed bloody murder (partly because they were suspicious of all “dinobirds,” but also because the creature had not yet been properly described in a scientific journal).

I have the dubious distinction of having written that article article back in November 1999 and remember distinctly the sharp tone of Storrs Olsen’s open letter which he sent to numerous scientists and which was reported heavily in creationist web sites as evidence against evolution. It was addressed to Dr. Peter Raven, chairman of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. I present here a couple choice bits from that letter:

“With the publication of "Feathers for T. rex?" by Christopher P. Sloan in its November issue, National Geographic has reached an all-time low for engaging in sensationalistic, unsubstantiated, tabloid journalism.”

and

“The idea of feathered dinosaurs and the theropod origin of birds is being actively promulgated by a cadre of zealous scientists acting in concert with certain editors at Nature and National Geographic who themselves have become outspoken and highly biased proselytizers of the faith. Truth and careful scientific weighing of evidence have been among the first casualties in their program, which is now fast becoming one of the grander scientific hoaxes of our age—the paleontological equivalent of cold fusion. If Sloan's article is not the crescendo of this fantasia, it is difficult to imagine to what heights it can next be taken.”

I don’t know what happened to vocal opposition of this sort. Olson, Feduccia and their colleagues were dutifully quoted by journalists in almost every news article on feathered dinosaurs back then. But as evidence to support the hypothesis has been pouring in, those opposing views quoted so often before in news media have trickled to nothing. So discoveries like the quill knobs on a Velociraptor are reported without mention of controversy.

Yet, this particular discovery should be controversial and generate discussion. Not because a dinosaur had feathers, but because it raises the nagging question of why a non-flying dinosaur had quilled feathers? Quilled feathers, as opposed to downlike “protofeathers” are necessary for flight in birds. There are the standard explanations for why they might appear in flightless dinosaurs: display, thermoregulation, and lift when running up inclines, for example, but another explanation is that quilled feathers are on Velociraptor because it was secondarily flightless, like penguins are today.

I’m sure that many paleontologists will remember that Greg Paul, who published Dinosaurs of the Air: The Evolution and Loss of Flight in Dinosaurs and Birds in 2002, has long argued that just because birds descended from dinosaurs doesn’t mean that the relationship can’t be reversed to produce flightless dinosaurs that descended from birds.

This new debate won’t be resolved anytime soon, but it will be interesting to hear the differing viewpoints. In the meantime, I’m interested in finding the earliest published illustration of Velociraptor that shows it with quilled arm feathers. What’s printed above is the earliest one I could find. It is by paleontologist Greg Paul and appeared in his book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World published in 1988. It is reprinted here with Greg's kind permission. Send anything you think might be earlier to stonesbonesnthings@gmail.com.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (11)
Filed Under: paleontology

Comments

chris sloan
Sep 30, 2007 12AM #

I just heard from Mark Norell and Greg Paul. Mark informed me that Alan Feduccia published a paper in "The Auk" (Vol. 124 No. 2 April 2007) with co-authors Larry Martin and Sam Tarsitano that argues for placing feathered dinosaur groups such as Oviraptorosauria and Microraptors within the clade of birds. Their paper in that journal states:

"In our view, there is now little question that
Archaeopteryx and, therefore, birds, are closely
related to dromaeosaurids, particularly Chinese
Lower Cretaceous microraptors, which we
regard as a derived group of birds..."

Also, Greg pointed out that Gerald Mayr published a paper in the Dec. 2, 2005 Science which suggested that Archaeopteryx might be basal to dromaeosaurs. If true, this would suggest that the feathered dromaeosaurs were secondarily flightless. Yet the positioning of Archaeopteryx way down the cladogram, whether by Feduccia or Mayr, is quite controversial and we are certain to hear more in the future.

John V. Jackson
Sep 30, 2007 12AM #

"Yet the positioning of Archaeopteryx way down the cladogram, whether by Feduccia or Mayr, is quite controversial and we are certain to hear more in the future."

Oh yes, you'll hear plenty.

I'm so pleased Martin and Feduccia have finally come across - if this does actually represent an advance on their position of a few years ago, where they had some maniraptorans as flightless birds and others not.

I got the impression that G. Mayr was still rather reticent on this but at least he was open-minded and replied to emails, unlike many curators for example.

There are a number of issues that will be settled soon - for those that care to attend - but the biggest question is why the issues were always described as being settled in the earlier way, no suggestion of the "GS Paul/secondary flightless"view, despite the odd dismissive mention of the Martin/Feduccia camp.

Hopefully we may be in time to stop the old cladogram being depicted in tiles in the subway near the AMNH, alongside the "Ground-up" hypothesis! Enlightened scientists, even foreigners, will be thankful for that!

(Hey - will I be your first commenter?!)

chris sloan
Sep 30, 2007 12AM #

Thanks for the comment, John, and yes, yours is the first!

But what do you mean by "there are a number of issues that will be settled soon?"

From what I hear, Archaeopteryx is so "birdy" that it is really difficult to imagine it being basal to dromaeosaurs, etc...

John V. Jackson
Sep 30, 2007 12AM #

(Could have sworn I saw an email for you somewhere! Can't find it...)

You took me by surprise by answering, Chris!

"But what do you mean by "there are a number of issues that will be settled soon?" "

Partly, issues that I hope to provide answers to, all in one place, fairly soon. There are a great many questions that need to be answered before people can understand dinobirds; also, many questions have been given wrong answers (pick a famous dinobirder - I'll tell you some of the wrong answers he's been giving).

The main reason for this is incompetence throughout the field which involves many disciplines - and where someone does know what they're talking about in one area, either he makes mistakes in other areas or there is such a deadweight of other palaeontologists who don't understand the right way of doing things that any good new idea makes no headway.

It's so bad - what with the wrong people controlling the communication channels even within science (Henry Gee - the subeditor for palaeo at Nature would you believe - is a foremost proselytizer for the cladism! Try getting a cladoskeptic article past that Cerberus) and all the rest, that piecemeal advancement won't work. The whole thing has to be scrapped and started again.

Then there's the issue of getting the news to the public. There's even been a recent discussion about "frames" in science (Nature or Science jnl of a month or two ago). It means there's only a certain set of things - stories really - the public can understand, and the idea is scientists are wasting their time trying to say anything else. Poor old Greg Paul has just this week been the victim of this kind of dumbing down to the absurd at the hands of the media. It's time people like him took the job of presenting via film to the public directly, as well as via paper. Sell the programs down the Apple channel or whatever it is/going to be.

"From what I hear, Archaeopteryx is so "birdy" that it is really difficult to imagine it being basal to dromaeosaurs, etc...".

Compare their skeletons:
http://www.geocities.com/dannsdinosaurs/cryptovolans_skeleton.gif

The dromaeosaur (species pauli after you-know-who) has specialisations based on better use of the tail in predation, better flight, and bigger teeth, but no more than you'd expect 30 mys later - in fact the dromaeosaur is more birdy than Archaeopteryx.

Back again to why things will be settled soon: the tide has changed this year. The Feduccians converting to what I will call the complete truth (ahead of the palaeontologists), combined with that quite ordinary cladogram in Tuner et al 2007a ("Size Evolution Preceding Avian Flight") which is seriously flawed but has benefitted from escaping the travesty of the "outgroup rooting method", means not only will the right answer get better access to the media than Olshevsky or I have managed, but the dinosaur people are looking more like as isolated as they really are.

Cordially...

Jessica Sloan
Sep 30, 2007 12AM #

I'm not sure how early it is, but I think when the stuffed animals begin to come with wing feathers it is a good sign that the argument has been won.

http://coweb.cc.gatech.edu/cs2340/uploads/5219/velociraptor_daniel.jpg

David Marjanović
Sep 30, 2007 12AM #

"It's so bad - what with the wrong people controlling the communication channels even within science (Henry Gee - the subeditor for palaeo at Nature would you believe - is a foremost proselytizer for the cladism! Try getting a cladoskeptic article past that Cerberus)"

Apart from the fact that Gee has AFAIK retired, could you explain to me why you label the method of phylogenetics as an "ism" as if it were an ideology, what you mean by "cladoskeptic", and why you consider the outgroup method for rooting "a travesty"? What else would you suggest -- the midpoint of the tree?

Could it be that you simply dislike cladistics because it has, so far, not produced the results you would like it to produce?

David Marjanović
Sep 30, 2007 12AM #

Incidentally, Turner et al. of course use their outgroups to root their cladogram. Read the paper and the supp. inf. again.

IMHO their outgroup sampling is way too sparse, which probably explains why they fail to find Dilong as a tyrannosauroid, but it shouldn't matter much for the topology of those parts of the tree that are farther away from the root.

Tim W
Sep 30, 2007 12AM #

David M. wrote "Could it be that you simply dislike cladistics because it has, so far, not produced the results you would like it to produce?"

Heh heh! Yep, that sounds a lot like George Olshevsky. :-)

As for quill knobs in penguins, the situation is a little complicated...

http://dml.cmnh.org/2007Sep/msg00417.html

Also, it should be remembered that penguins do continue to use their 'wings' in locomotion - subaquatic rather than aerial, in this case. This could be the selection pressure for the retention of quill knobs.

Tim W
Sep 30, 2007 12AM #

Personally, I don't think the presence of quill knobs in Velociraptor has anything to do with secondary loss of flight. I think the quill knobs are there just to better secure the arm feathers to the ulna, to help keep them in place when Velociraptor is grasping and grappling with prey.

chris sloan
Sep 30, 2007 12AM #

I'm at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings in Austin and had lunch with Xu Xing. Regarding secondary loss of flight he suggests remaining open-minded.

I'm fascinated that penguins have quill knobs and some flying birds don't. There will be some talks on fossil penguins at this conference. I'll be looking at their ulnas!

chris sloan
Sep 30, 2007 12AM #

I spoke with Julia Clarke. She says basal penguins did not have quill knobs, but later ones do. Interesting. She suspects they play a role in aquatic "flight."

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