By David Coppedge

The first North American “feathered dinosaur” has put the media in a frenzy of celebration over questionable data.

Three Canadians from Alberta took a look at old fossils of the “ostrich-mimic” dinosaur Ornithomimus stored in drawers at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, and found fibrous impressions in the sandstone they interpret as feathers on the forewings.  News media immediately launched an artwork-laden campaign of touting this as the first “feathered dinosaur” found outside of China and Germany (Archaeopteryx being the German claim).

As soon as the paper hit Science, as if on cue, Science DailyPhysOrgLive Sciencethe BBCNews and the other usual suspects put up Julius Csotonyi’s creative artwork from their paper in their coverage with no critique or alternative analysis whatsoever.  Strangely, the popular reports added colorful backgrounds of sky and forest that were not present in the small image in the paper, though the University of Calgary press release came fully illustrated.  Moreover, the popular reports simply parroted the interpretation of the feathers as courtship displays, while soft-pedaling the problems.

And there are problems.  First of all, the rock impressions of the “feathers” consist mostly of straight lines that look nothing like the pennaceous flight feathers of  Archaeopteryx.  One will read Zelenitsky’s paper in vain for mention the words vanepennaceous or barbule in the main paper or supplemental information, except (for barbule) in the following curious circumlocution, “Evidence of shafted feathers {i.e., feathers with a rigid shaft, with or without interlocking barbules [type 3 feathers or higher (11, 12)]} is preserved on the forelimb bones of an adult Ornithomimus skeleton.”  The authors call them “filamentous feathers” with filamentous meaning just that: a filament or shaft, much simpler than the complex vanes of true feathers with their barbs, barbules and interlocking hooks….

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