The word dinosaur was coined by the English paleontologist Richard Owen in 1842, and comes from the Greek word for “fearsome lizard.” If you have seen any of the dinosaur movie classics, this description likely seems accurate. From Jurassic Park to The Land Before Time, dinosaurs on-screen are typically portrayed as large, scaly reptiles.
It turns out, however, Hollywood might have gotten it all wrong. Many scientists are now of the belief that dinosaurs are actually more closely related to birds. What’s more, birds are now thought to be direct descendents of the theropod group of dinosaurs. So in a sense, you could say that dinosaurs still roam the Earth.
Of course, most of us think of dinosaurs as looking a certain way. If dinosaurs and birds are related, it raises a few questions about just what dinosaurs actually looked like. Like did dinosaurs have feathers?
Did Dinosaurs Have Feathers?
Following the publication of Charles Darwin’s influential On the Origin of Species in 1859, a British biologist named Thomas Henry Huxley would become among the first proponents of the idea that birds were descendants of dinosaurs. Huxley came to this theory by comparing the skeletal structure of a small theropod dinosaur, and that of the “first bird.” His ideas were largely dismissed by the prominent paleontologists of the era, however, and for the next century, there was little more discussion of Huxley’s theory.
That would change in 1969, when American paleontologist John Ostrom described Deinonychus antirrhopus, a theropod he had discovered in Montana five years earlier. Ostrom noted an almost unmistakable skeletal resemblance between his theropod and birds. He would become one of the foremost proponents of the theory that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs. And soon, with increased research, other scientists would begin suggest that perhaps dinosaurs had feathers.
However, up until the mid-1990s, not everyone was really onboard with the idea that some dinosaurs had feathers. Up to that point, the only evidence to support the theory was comparative anatomy. Some remained skeptical that without fossils, the idea of feathered dinosaurs lacked evidence.
An Interesting Discovery
In the 1990s, the first conclusive, well-preserved fossils of feathered dinosaurs were discovered. Many of these dinosaurs were small, and appeared to simply be branches in the bird family tree. However, in 1996 in China, Sinosauropteryx was discovered. This dinosaur was an important discovery, as it was the first feathered theropod that wasn’t a direct relative of birds. Today, thousands of feathered dinosaur fossils have been dug up. Scientist now have a better picture of not only the origin of modern birds, but have also been forced to reexamine long standing beliefs about what dinosaurs looked like and how the behaved.
Take the case of Yutyrannus huali, a 23-foot-long relative of Tyrannosaurus rex that lived 125 million years ago. Found in China, and named and scientifically described in 2012, Yutyrannus, whose name means “feathered tyrant”, is the largest known dinosaur to possess feathers.
It is also worth noting that these larger dinosaurs could not fly. Flight is actually a complicated evolutionary process. These feathers did serve an evolutionary purpose, however. It is thought that instead, these feathers were used primarily for insulation (like penguins) and visual displays (like peacocks).
What’s more, it is thought that dinosaur feathers likely came in a rainbow of colors. This certainly changes our current notion of what dinosaurs looked like. Now we just have to wait for the next Jurassic World film. Perhaps we’ll finally get to see some feathered dinosaurs on-screen!