Science, Tech & Environment

Was T. Rex actually pink and covered in feathers?

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Credit: Andrey Atuchin/Science

An artist's impression of feathered dinosaurs

Imagine you're walking through the jungle, back in the age of the dinosaurs. You come to a clearing and you see your favorite —  a tyrannosaurus or a triceratops or whatever — and, wait a minute. It's covered in feathers?

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

new find in Siberia raises the possibility that all dinosaurs had feathers, not just the later ones that scientists think ultimately evolved into birds.

Paleontologists have debated for years just how early dinosaurs developed feathers. According to a new article in Science, a leading journal, the strongest fossil evidence for feathers up until now dated back to meat-eating dinosaur species that lived about 150 million years ago.

But a newly revealed find, which dates to 2010, shows evidence of feathers in older, plant-eating dinosaurs. That's key, because meat-eaters and plant-eaters split into two broad groups more than 200 million years ago. For both groups to have feathers means that the feathers may have been present even at the dawn of the dinosaur age.

“It tells us that feathers must have arisen earlier in dinosaur evolution than most of us previously thought," Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, said in the Science article, "and maybe even the common ancestor of all dinosaurs had feathers."

Michael Balter, who wrote the article, says “there’s a lot of really big questions which this new discovery could help to answer.” 

Balter says there’s already a consensus among scientists that birds are dinosaurs, but the new find raises questions about when dinosaurs started becoming birds.

“Just how deep does 'birdiness' go in evolutionary terms?” he asks. "Birdiness" is a term Balter has coined to describe the bird-like properties found in many dinosaur remains.

“The new discovery indicates that birdiness really probably arose very, very early in dinosaur evolution," he says. "Part of the reason this new discovery is so important is that this new dinosaur, Kulindadromeus, is about as far away from birds as you can get in terms of evolutionary relatedness. So it implies that maybe even all dinosaurs had feathers, going back to the very beginning, or at least a large number of them did.”

Balter says scientists are putting forward several theories to explain the emergence of feathers. They may have been used for insulatio, helping to keep eggs warm or, maybe, to catch the eye of a potential mate.

“A male T. Rex that was multi-colored like a peacock would presumably have been pretty attractive to females and therefore would have done better reproductively," Balter says.

The discovery even gives Hollywood a second chance at putting dinos on the big screen. Another Jurassic Park sequel comes out next year, and Balter says the franchise “badly needs to be updated — with feathers.”

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