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Not just a bit of fluff

The new fluffy dinosaurs are marking a step-change in the way the media portray the terrible lizards

It is often said that dinosaurs command the interest of children because they are gigantic, fierce - and dead. We used to think of dinosaurs in these stereotypical terms, fostered by the popular reconstructions of cinema. But now we know that this image (stupid, aggressive, cold blooded and doomed) is about as accurate as the cringe-making racist stereotypes of native Americans and Mexicans that were once the common currency of Hollywood and TV Westerns.

After Jurassic Park andWalking with Dinosaurs introduced us to a more rounded view of dinosaurs and their world, after we suffered with Big Al as his damaged toe-bones get the better of him, we began to tire of these cardboard portrayals - and about time, too.

Sensing perhaps that dinos red in tooth and claw have started to bore their readers, journalists are fastening onto dino-stories that seem to swing the other way. On occasions, MM wakes up in a cold sweat - the nightmare being that if things go on, Disney's loathsome Aladar may turn out to have foreshadowed yet another media stereotype - the cutesy dinosaur - the warm, huggy, caring, sharing dinosaur - the dinosaur with a song in his heart. But it hasn't got that bad yet. Indeed, the ever-beneficial process of de-sterotyping has done nothing but good for public understanding of science.

In April, we learned that dinos scored yet another first in the animal kingdon - they invented cuddliness. This remarkable assertion was based on a 130Ma-old fossil, which in life was apparently covered from head to tail with downy fluff and primitive feathers. Cue attractive reconstruction graphic (picture).

This was, in fact, the first dinosaur found with its entire body-covering intact, and provided the best evidence to date that animals developed feathers for warmth before they could fly. The dinosaur was unearthed in spring 2000 by farmers, digging in the famous fossil beds of north eastern China's Liaoning Province. It was then described in Nature by a team led by Ji Qiang, of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, and Mark Norell, Chairman of the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. And that was where the story started.

The fossil animal was a dromaeosaur, a small, fast-running dinosaur closely related to Velociraptor with a sickle claw on its middle toe and stiffening rods in its tail. Dromaeosaurs belong to a group of dinosaurs known as advanced theropods, two-legged predators including T. rex, with sharp teeth and bones strikingly similar to those of modern-day birds.

"This fossil radically modifies our vision of these extinct animals," said Norell, whose many discoveries in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia have led to new ideas about theropods and bird origins. "It shows us that advanced theropod dinosaurs may have looked more like weird birds than giant lizards."

However, in a gift to the newspapers, the dinosaur's skeleton resembled nothing less than a large duck with a long tail and an oversized head (indicating that the specimen was a juvenile). Its head and tail were covered with downy fibres. Other parts of its body sprouted tufts resembling primitive feathers, while the backs of its arms were adorned with branched structures like the barbs of a modern bird feather.

Since 1995, when the first dinosaur with primitive feathers, Sinosauropteryx, was discovered in the Yixian Formation, several new species of dinosaur with feather-like structures have been found there. But in most cases the fossils were jumbled or incomplete - making it unclear how the feather-like structures related to the animal's body.

The detail on the newly discovered dromaeosaur was so fine that it allowed the scientists to see how the primitive feathers were attached to its body. "This is the specimen we've been waiting for" said Ji Qiang. "It makes it indisputable that a body-covering similar to feathers was present in non-avian dinosaurs."

Because dromaeosaurs are more evolutionarily "primitive" than birds, this fossil helps make the case that feathers developed independently of flight. In small, flightless dinosaurs like this one, feathers may well have evolved as insulation. Which, from the point of view of popular science, enables us to make two important contra-creationist points.

First, things often evolve for other reasons than the final use to which the "complete" structure is put. Thus the evolution of apparently "perfect" structures, that seem only to have any use if every aspect of their structure were to come into existence at once, is explained. Secondly, it provides ample additional evidence to that of Archaeopteryx (the only feathery dinosaur in the popular consciousness) that feathers are intimately associated with dinosaurs, and not - as some would still have it, despite the incontrovertible certainty that they are not - cunning forgeries designed by crooked palaeontologists to bolster Darwinism.

"Modern birds are warm-blooded and their feathers play an integral role in keeping them warm, so a reasonable idea is that non-avian dinosaurs developed primitive feathers at the same time that they developed warm-bloodedness" said Norell. "It's conceivable that smaller dinosaurs like this one and even the young of larger species like Tyrannosaurus rex may have needed feather-like body coverings to maintain their body temperature."

Consisting of layers of volcanic and sedimentary rock, the Yixian Formation in China's Liaoning Province has yielded an enormous variety of fossil fish, birds, insects, reptiles, shrimp, flowers, mammals, and dinosaurs dating back to late Jurassic and early Cretaceous times-between 145 and 120Ma ago.

At that time, the region was dotted with freshwater lakes and volcanoes. Volcanic explosions rained fine ash into the lakes, and animals that died or fell into the water were quickly buried in the fine-grained sediment at the bottom. Because they were buried so quickly, with so little oxygen available to promote decay, the fossil animals found in the Yixian Formation have delicate features almost impossibly preserved from feathers and fish scales to patterns on insect wings. "These fossils have dramatically changed the way we understand what life was like during late Jurassic and early Cretaceous times" said Ji Qiang.

Dinosaurs and birds

In addition to this as yet unnamed new dromaeosaur, in the last two decades many other bird-like dinosaurs and dinosaur-like birds have been unearthed at fossil sites around the world, including Madagascar, Mongolia, Patagonia, and Spain. Together with the Chinese fossils, they provide strong (though not uncontested) evidence that birds evolved from theropods.

The link between dinosaurs and birds was first noted in the mid-1800s by a former President of the Geological Society of London, Thomas Henry Huxley (see Funny Old World, p…). He observed that birds were built much like reptiles, but with a beak instead of teeth and with three reptilian fingers hidden inside their wings. In the 1970s, John Ostrom (Yale University) launched a meticulous comparison of the anatomical features of dinosaurs and the oldest known bird, Archaeopteryx.

Today we know that theropod dinosaurs and birds share more than 100 anatomical features, including a wishbone, swiveling wrists, and three forward-pointing toes. Among all advanced theropods, the swift-running dromaeosaurs are thought to be the most closely related to birds.

It is always immensely satisfying to see the destruction of stereotypes, which (as Stephen Gould has reminded us on more than one occasion) lose none of their cultural power for being untrue. The greatest barriers to enlightenment are the things we think we know. So - hats off to the fluffy dinosaurs.

[Daily Telegraph 26.4.01, p5; The Guardian 26.4.01, p11 etc.]