How do we know dinosaurs have feathers?

It turns out that fossils have preserved much more than just bone structure


Most of us have been captivated by the idea of dinosaurs since childhood. Among their numbers stood veracious
hunters, towering leaf-eaters, armoured warriors and soaring giants. Add to that the wonder we all felt when we learned that our planet used to belong to them, that before we inherited the (self-awarded) title of Earth’s apex
animal, it was the reptilian dinosaurs that ruled supreme.

In films, books and other illustrations we long envisaged dinosaurs to be clad in scales and thick skin, much like the reptiles of today – such as the terrifying yet magnificent Komodo dragon. A fearsome appearance such as this, after all, is only fitting for a world-conquering group. But would our perception of dinosaurs be altered if we were to learn that some were feathered and some were even fluffy?

Scientists found the first evidence of feathered dinosaurs over 150 years ago with the discovery of the Archaeopteryx. After the animal died, it left behind an immensely well-preserved fossil, and tucked beneath its long arms were the
impressions of many familiar curved shapes.

The evidence was clear for all to see – the Archaeopteryx had feathers. It wasn’t until the 1990s, however, that scientists would uncover much more evidence that showed that Archaeopteryx wasn’t alone in its feathery ways. Archaeologists in China unearthed a collection of complete fossils that had a clear halo of ‘dino fuzz’ surrounding the skeletal impressions, which they determined must had been a form of primitive feathers, or fur.

The modern expert opinion holds that an entire group of dinosaurs, known as the Theropods, likely bore feathers in some capacity. These would have started as fluffy, primitive barbs but in some species would have evolved into fully established feathered wings that were sometimes used for flying. Perhaps most intriguingly, the beloved velociraptor and the T-rex belong to this group. So these terrifying creatures may have looked much more ‘cuddly’ than was previously believed.


This article was originally published in How It Works issue 118, written by James Horton

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