A new dinosaur fossil discovered in China supposedly indicates that it had feathers. The Christian Science Monitor reported that the fossil of the Yutyrannus huali, the “beautiful feathered tyrant,” was the largest yet found of the now famous Chinese “feathered dinosaurs.”1 The technical description published in Nature claimed that a “gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China” was recovered.2 But do these fossils really reveal former feathers, or does another interpretation, perhaps something as simple as decayed skin fibers, better explain them?

Below its headline, the Christian Science Monitor qualified the “feathered” label: These “feathers” are actually just “feather-like features,” or “simple filaments.”1 Similarly, the Nature text described them as “filamentous integumentary [skin] structures.”2 Real bird feathers are complicated, with semi-hollow cores and branching barbs, but the fossil’s filaments apparently did not have these features. If the word “feather” just means “filament,” then could any filament—like a hair or plant fiber—not also be called a “feather”?

Answering this correctly is important. Why would God have placed feathers on dinosaurs when, today at least, only birds have feathers? On the other hand, “The idea of protofeathers [feather-like filaments on dinosaurs] has strengthened the resolve of many palaeontologists that birds are direct descendents of theropod [lizard-hipped, three-toed] dinosaurs,” even though these “feathers” have been discovered on non-theropod dinosaurs, too.3….

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