Uh-oh, creationist-darling Alan Feduccia is at it again. In an new Proceedings of the Royal Society B paper entitled “A new Chinese specimen indicates that ‘protofeathers’ in the Early Cretaceous theropod dinosaur Sinosauropteryx are degraded collagen fibres“, Feduccia (along with Theagarten Lingham-Soliar and Xiaolin Wang) claim that the primitive feathers of the small dinosaur Sinosauropteryx are merely only degraded elements of the animal, and thus it did not have feathers. Reputable dinosaur experts vehemently disagree with Feduccia’s assertions however (and have for some time; Feduccia’s take on Sinosauropteryx is not new), and Kevin Padian succinctly put it this way;
“These people have been flogging the same horse for a long time… It is appalling that Proceedings B chose to publish this nonsense.”
The majority of the National Geographic news story reporting the new paper, however, is devoted to the claims of Feduccia and other scientists who don’t believe birds evolved from dinosaurs at all, the whole article having an intelligent-design sort of vibe to it. Says Feduccia;
We are dealing here basically with a faith-based science where the contrarian view is silenced to a large extent by the popular press.
The article also hints at a rather interesting claim by Feduccia; that dinosaurs like Sinosauropteryx aren’t, in fact, dinosaurs at all;
When they become flightless, they superficially resemble small dinosaurs.
This stems from the logic that if Sinosauropteryx is a secondarily flightless descendant of birds, birds which evolved from a non-dinosaur ancestor, then Sinosauropteryx is really a paleontological red-herring, converging on the dinosaur body plan. As Ned Flanders would say, “Sounds like he’s strainin’ to do some explainin’.”
So if birds did not evolve from dinosaurs, what did they evolve from? Feduccia’s choice is Longisquama insignis, a lizard-like diapsid with a row of skin flaps on its back, which some believe are feathers or feather-like structures. Here’s a reconstruction (with and without the skin flaps) from Wikipedia;
Ironically, just as Feduccia doubts that dinosaurs had feathers, the structures on the back of Longisquama seem even more dubious; they’re not feathers, but they could be anything from skin-flaps to a fossilized fern on the same slab. Beyond the odd structures, however, there does not seem to be any compelling reason to believe Longisquama is a bird ancestor outside of preference; while a dinosaur-bird relationship seemed apparent very early in the study of dinosaurs, the view switched over to a thecodont origin for birds as outlined in Heilmann’s The Origin of Birds, the “dinosaur renaissance” fueled by the work of Ostrom and Bakker revitalizing the notion that birds are related and derived from dinosaurs. There are some who still cling to the old model however, and even Ernst Mayr briefly alluded to his affinity for a thecodont-bird relationship in his book What Evolution Is.
While the new fossils coming out of China require careful and meticulous study, there is no reason to believe that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs, and even if Feduccia’s analysis of the particular Sinosauropteryx fossil mentioned in his paper was correct it would not somehow demolish all we’ve come to understand about dinosaurs and birds. There are plenty of problems to be solved, that is certain, but the general ancestor/descendant relationship is clear.
I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention the new Feduccia paper itself. While There are plenty of pictures and analysis, the bottom line is this; Feduccia doesn’t accept dinosaurs are bird ancestors and the structures on the Sinosauropteryx have some resemblance to collagen fibres, therefore they can’t be feathers. This, of course, is extended to other fossils like Dilong as well;
As in Sinosauropteryx, proposals that integumental structures preserved in Sinornithosaurus (Xu et al. 2001) and tyrannosauroids (Xu et al. 2004) are the remains of protofeathers/feathers do not withstand scientific scrutiny (Lingham-Soliar in Feduccia et al. 2005).
Of further interest is this somewhat paradoxical claim from the paper’s introduction;
Sinosauropteryx. Clearly, the results on whether or not they [the "integumentary structures" on the fossil] are protofeathers will impact on the vital question of feather origins, dinosaur physiology and bird flight (Feduccia et al. 2005 and references therein); on the other hand, we emphasize, the wider question of whether or not birds originate from dinosaurs does not concern the present study.
This is especially intriguing in light of what Feduccia was quoted as saying in the National Geographic article;
“The existence of protofeathers in these dinosaurs was considered critical evidence that birds were derived from dinosaurs,” said study co-author Alan Feduccia, a bird evolution expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“What we have shown is that there’s absolutely no evidence whatsoever that protofeathers existed in dinosaurs, period.”
So the study has nothing to do with dinosaur->bird evolution, except that it (in Feduccia’s view) disproves dinosaur->bird evolution. These are rather bold claims stemming from a paper that looks at two fossils and says that the structures present can’t be feathers because of pre-existing preferences to alternate hypotheses involving the origin of birds. It should be noted, however, that paleontologists aren’t going to be fooled by the new paper because they have heard the argument before; those who want to adhere to a non-dinosaurian bird origin will likely tout it as startling new evidence, the majority of paleontologists will see it for what it is.
I have to say that I am a little disappointed by the NG coverage of the story, however; more time is given to Feduccia and others pleading their rather hopeless case than to analysis of the paper. The comments of David Unwin is a bit of a help, but overall the article has the same “teach the controversy” vibe that I wouldn’t have expected unless I saw it myself. Just like the coverage for the Creation Museum, objectivity was valued higher than validity, a problem that seems to be a huge problem for journalists dealing with science.
(Hat-tip to Larry Moran)
End Note: Ed Darrell rightly points out that Feduccia is not a crackpot, fringe pundit; he’s done a lot of good work in the field of ornithology. He is not a creationist or ID-advocate either; my main point was that creationists latch on to his ideas because they go against the accepted model for bird origins, and the complaints of Feduccia and others (that they’re an intellectually-persecuted minority challenging “scientific orthodoxy”) remind me of arguments used by advocated of intelligent design. While Feduccia does not doubt evolution, his rhetoric does sometimes resemble that of evolution opponents.
What I do find interesting, however, is how many scientists who are primarily ornithologists (like Ernst Mayr) have a problem with a dinosaur-bird evolutionary relationship while paleontologists don’t seem to have the same issue. Unfortunately for Feduccia, he’s known more for his opinions on the dino-bird issue than his other work and the language he (and others who hold his view) uses reminds me of ID-speak, but however wrong he might be on this issue he has contributed important work to the field of ornithology in general.