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Dinosaur Feathers

Tiny dinosaurI may be part of a transitional generation – the last to think of dinosaurs as being primeval reptilian beasts as opposed to feathered proto-birds. Of course, even my generation was transitional in this sense. We might have been the first generation for whom the popular understanding of dinosaurs was of nimble and intelligent creatures rather than the slow lumbering dullards the 19th and most of the 20th century imagined them to be.

The modern, scientific understanding of dinosaurs is that many of them were basically flightless birds with teeth. As a matter of fact, the famed bipedal theropod dinosaurs we all got to know and love in Jurassic Park, (Tyrannosaurus, Velociraptor, Gallimimus et al) are now thought to be more closely related to modern chickens than any of them were related to other famous dinosaurs like the ridge-plated Stegosaurus, the armoured Ankylosaurus, the horned Triceratops or the long-necked Brachiosaurus. These two-legged theropods, far from being the scaly monsters of every child’s nightmares, now have a much warmer, fluffier, brighter, more familiar covering.

Unfortunately, becoming more avian than reptilian has also meant that these dinosaurs have lost some of their street cred. There seems to be something very instinctual about a fear of reptiles and it’s something that most humans appear to have. Whether this is just the result of widespread cultural motifs depicting reptiles as an evil other, an aversion to venomous snakes and creatures like them, or something deeper, something buried deep within our DNA, it’s hard to deny that reptiles are hard to love and easy to fear. Perhaps in our genes, we are still the hunted monkeys cowering in fear of the anaconda in the trees.

Or perhaps not. For every image of reptiles being these slithering, sliding, cold predatory creatures, there is a counter example of them being wise, benevolent or powerful. It really depends on your culture. Whereas our very word for describing these animals comes from a Latin root meaning “to creep” (reptus) and one image for the very embodiment of evil is in the form of a snake, other cultures like the Aztecs, and Hindus turned these creatures into important deities (Quetzalcoatl and the Nagas respectively). It could be that snakes developed into deities because of their natural and obvious power – being able to kill with a single bite is something that is hard to ignore.

All the same, there is something wicked, alien and powerful about reptiles that this older image of dinosaurs appeared to tap into. Not only were dinosaurs often huge, possessed of killer teeth and murderous claws, but they were also scaly and cold to the touch – terrible lizards in both name and deed.

Contrast this with your image of just about anything with feathers and the difference couldn’t be more stark. Even the largest and most dangerous birds, hawks, eagles, vultures, emus, ostriches and cassowaries, simply don’t inspire the same kind of terror as the that scaly image of theropod dinosaurs do. Gone are the scales, replaced with soft down and sweeping feathers. Gone are the teeth, replaced with flat beaks. Gone are the arm claws, replaced with fingerless wings. Let’s face it – these birds may be just as dangerous as their ancestors were, but they just don’t look the part.

Which, perhaps, is part of the reason I’ve seen so much pushback on the topic from people my age (mostly male) whenever the topic comes up.  One very common sentiment I’ve seen thrown around in response to new dinosaur discoveries featuring feathers is a variation on the theme “DINOS DON’T HAVE FEATHERS >:-(“.  It’s as though a small part of people’s childhoods dies when they find out that the fearsome velociraptor was probably covered head-to-toe in feathers instead of scales.  And the size of a chicken.  That bit also seems to raise a bit of ire.

Mind you, Velociraptor has always been that small, ever since its discovery.  Spielberg and company apparently thought the name of the more appropriately-sized Deinonychus was too hard for audiences to say and the name of Utahraptor too parochial.  But you’re going to get that when making a blockbuster dinosaur movie as opposed to a documentary.  The facts sometimes have to give way to the cinematic, which also explains why Dilophosaurus appears with a frill neck, spits venom and was unaccountably tiny in that movie.

As if to drive the point home, many paleontologists now classify birds as being a type of dinosaur.  As a matter of fact, the dinosaurs you came to know and love in your childhood, the kind that all went extinct 65 million years ago now come with the qualifier, having become non-avian dinosaurs.  The good news then, is that the dinosaurs are still alive.  The bad news is that your inner ten-year-old probably thinks they’re kind of lame.

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