Richard Prum : Dinosaurs are all around us. They didn’t go extinct. In fact, they’re the most plentiful and diverse group of terrestrial vertebrates on the planet. They are the birds!
Richard Prum, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University, is an expert on the structure of feathers. He told EarthSky that feathers originated in dinosaurs – not in birds.
Richard Prum : In literally the last 10 years, we’ve discovered that feathers evolved in dinosaurs before the origin of flight. And that’s been an astounding result given that biologists spent over a century thinking that feathers actually evolved for flight.
In 2010, Prum became the first scientist to reconstruct the full plumage of a dinosaur, in color. He based his work on the fossilized remains of a dinosaur called a troodontid, a small, meat-eating, flightless dinosaur. Dr. Prum found evidence of black, gray, white, and red feathers.
Richard Prum: We discovered the original pigment granules that had been in the feathers of the animal when it was alive, the kind of pigments that produce black hair and red hair and blond hair in humans.
Prum said this dinosaur had the kind of coloration you might find on a particularly striking turkey or chicken today. He added that, since these ancient feathers didn’t aid flight, they likely served for purposes of animal communication, mating, and warmth. Prum said that feathers weren’t found in all dinosaurs, just in a particular class of dinosaurs called therapods.
Richard Prum: They’re sort of the most charismatic and meat-eating of the dinosaurs. These are Velociraptor, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Allosaurus, all those guys.
He explained that our lack of knowledge about the function of early feathers is actually coincident with new discoveries about what those feathers were like.
Richard Prum: It looks like the first feathers were actually simple tubes, like a simple tube with a tuft, a fuzzy tuffy like a down feather, followed by a more complex branch feather.
Prum said he’s working right now on a paper about dinosaur molting. He says that dinosaurs shed their feathers the way modern birds do.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.