|Evolution in the News - January 1998|
Scientists: Feather-like creatures on dinosaur may have kept it warm
NEW YORK (AP)-A controversial dinosaur find in northeastern China suggests that the meat-eating creature was warm-blooded and used a feather-like covering to keep it warm, scientists said today. 1
We suspect there was a typo in the newspaper headline. They probably meant "Feather-like features", not "Feather-like creatures".
The Associated Press was quoting an article that appeared in "today's issue [January 8, 1998] of the journal Nature." If you didn't know better, you would think that this was a new, important, recent discovery. In fact, it is just a rehash of the discovery that was reported nearly five years ago in Time magazine. The Chinese scientists who found it were probably just running low on funding, and needed to publish something to renew the interest in their work.
Some scientists said it confirmed the widely accepted notion that birds evolved from dinosaurs. But others objected that it's not clear whether the fossils really show anything related to feathers. 2
In other words, no conclusions but a lot of speculation. It did, however, inspire us to go back to the old Time article, where we came across this amazing statement:
Observes Mark Norell, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City: "Birds are more closely related to Tyrannosaurus rex than Tyrannosaurus is to almost any dinosaur you've ever heard of." 3
That's more ridiculous than almost any other quote you've ever heard of. But it does show how arbitrary and subjective the biological classification system is. It all depends upon what criteria you use to make the comparison. Norell has selected some criteria that T. rex shares with birds and has used that as the basis of his comparison. If he had used body weight, he no doubt would have come to a different conclusion.
If you compare certain character characteristics of gorillas and people, you can come to the conclusion that gorillas are more closely related to people than they are to chimps. You won't come to that conclusion if you compare body hair.
Returning to the Associated Press report of the article in Nature, it is interesting to note that:
Scientists are debating how old the fossils are, with estimates ranging from around 120 million years old to about 140 million or older. 4
The presumed age of a fossil can affect its classification. This critter is classified as a dinosaur because it is too old to be a bird. If the fossils had been found in rocks that were presumed to be 1 million years old, then it might have been classified as some kind of bird because it is too young to be a dinosaur.
The facts are that it "was basically the size of a turkey with a long, lizard-like tail attached. One specimen measures about two feet long from the snout to the tip of the tail, and the other is somewhat bigger." 5 The rest is speculation, not science.
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1Daily Independent, January 8, 1998, Page A5
3 Time, Apr. 26, 1993, "The Truth about Dinosaurs" (Ev)
4Daily Independent, January 8, 1998, Page A5