by Michael J. Oard

Photograph courtesy of Ray Strom

A review of the popular dinosaur–bird link shows that the case for feathered dinosaurs is mixed, with some claimed ‘protofeathers’ possibly being fossilized features of the skin. Some claimed theropods did have true feathers, some even with flight feathers on their feet, but there are questions as to whether these creatures are really dinosaurs or are unique, extinct birds similar to Archaeopteryx. Furthermore, careful reassessment shows that the popular belief in the dino-to-bird transition is based on a flawed cladistics analysis.

The idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs has excited the evolutionary imagination for many years. Thomas Huxley, called Darwin’s Bulldog because of his aggressive promotion of evolution, was the first to suggest an evolutionary connection between dinosaurs and birds, an idea that remained popular in the 1800s.1 However, this idea waned in the early 1900s because paleontologists believed dinosaurs were too specialized for birds to have arisen from that line. By ‘specialized’ they meant that dinosaurs had evolved too many specific complex features for birds to have evolved from them. The avian origin from reptiles was still accepted, but the parent creature was thought by some to be a crocodile-like animal, and by others to be from the flying reptiles, the pterosaurs.

In about 1980, the dinosaur–bird connection once again became popular. It started with the idea that dinosaurs may have been warm blooded.2 The theory has been fuelled by numerous discoveries of dinosaurs, birds, mammals, and other creatures in Liaoning Province, northeast China. Among these fossils were at least nine that paleontologists claimed were feathered theropod dinosaurs. This has been widely reported and promoted by the media and popular science journals. Even the journal Nature cited these discoveries as proof that birds evolved from dinosaurs.3 It is even suggested that some tyrannosaurids (similar to, but not quite like, T. rex) had protofeathers4,5 Museum displays are now adding feathers to dinosaurs where there is no evidence for feathers, such as the display in the Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana, showing a feathered Deinonychus attacking a duck-billed dinosaur (figure 1)….

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