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April 24, 2008 12:24 PM   Subscribe

A new round of genetic tests has confirmed it: The 'big lizards' of our childhood fantasies were more likely 'big birds.' In fact, they probably even had feathers, and looked more like this than this. Mind blowing, I know, but I guess this demonstrates that, despite what some may think, science really doesn't have a problem admitting that it got something wrong when new evidence comes to light.
posted by saulgoodman (75 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
see also...
posted by popcassady at 12:39 PM on April 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


the context within which you've framed this post is spectacular.
posted by shmegegge at 12:39 PM on April 24, 2008


While they may have had feathers, they also had HUGE FUCKING TEETH!!!

So, while related to birds, still much scarier than birds.
posted by daq at 12:41 PM on April 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


if you've ever hung out with an ostrich or an emu, you'd have no doubt that they are related to dinosaurs
posted by gnutron at 12:42 PM on April 24, 2008


out of curiosity, does anyone know where the idea that dinosaurs had featherless scaled skin came from? I know precious little about the history of paleontology and now I'm wondering where we got our current understanding of their skin from.
posted by shmegegge at 12:43 PM on April 24, 2008


Archaeopterix wins!
posted by grabbingsand at 12:43 PM on April 24, 2008


Boo. I liked the lizards.
posted by ryanrs at 12:45 PM on April 24, 2008


if you've ever hung out with an ostrich or an emu, you'd have no doubt that they are related to dinosaurs

gnutron: exactly what i thought when i first read this! but still it seems like such a huge revision to how dinosaurs have been and still are depicted in popular culture.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:45 PM on April 24, 2008


> So, while related to birds, still much scarier than birds.

Jurassic Park IV: The Birds
posted by ardgedee at 12:46 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


smegegge: cast fossils. FWIW, birds are scaled too.
posted by popcassady at 12:46 PM on April 24, 2008


While many fossils may not have clear impressions of feathers, some show the presence of quill knobs which, in a modern context, are a sure indicator of feathers or feather-like structures. Imagine that for a sec, a fluffy, fuzzy wuzzy, downy-soft velociraptor!

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go admire the bluejay fledglings in the hedge.
Coos to flegeling: Who's a little wuffly dinosaur? You are! Awwww!
posted by lekvar at 12:47 PM on April 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


FWIW, birds are scaled too.

no fucking way!
posted by shmegegge at 12:48 PM on April 24, 2008


saulgoodman: oh, absolutely. i was a dinosaur-phile as a child, so i am always titillated by discoveries like this. it's a huge change from how we have historically viewed dinos, which the child in me finds very exciting. since we are putting together the pieces of the puzzle bit-by-bit, our conceptions of dinosaurs has always been incomplete and based on best guesses. our notions of their appearance, function and behavior has been (and probably always will be) subject to drastic change.
posted by gnutron at 12:52 PM on April 24, 2008


and now I'm wondering where we got our current understanding of their skin from.

good question. was it just because the people who made the first discoveries assumed they were reptiles and gave them a name meaning 'terrible lizards' in latin?

Wikipedia says this: The taxon Dinosauria was formally named in 1842 by English palaeontologist Richard Owen, who used it to refer to the "distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles" that were then being recognized in England and around the world.[2] The term is derived from the Greek words δεινός (deinos meaning "terrible", "fearsome", or "formidable") and σαύρα (saura meaning "lizard" or "reptile"). Though the taxonomic name has often been interpreted as a reference to dinosaurs' teeth, claws, and other fearsome characteristics, Owen intended it merely to evoke their size and majesty.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:52 PM on April 24, 2008


er, i meant "...a name meaning 'terrible lizards' in greek..."

posted by saulgoodman at 12:58 PM on April 24, 2008


So what your saying is that cavemen and dinosaurs sort of did coexist?
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:01 PM on April 24, 2008


When I was a teenage dinophile Science Fiction nerd I'd fantasize about the reintroduction of dinosaurs to Earth. I remember the jolt of happiness I felt when I realized that, in fact, they never went away. Dinosaurs are awesome and they sing such beautiful songs.

I have to remember to put on my old Dinomation tour guide t-shirt tonight to celebrate.
posted by Kattullus at 1:06 PM on April 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


Harry Harrison is gonna be pissed.
posted by OmieWise at 1:08 PM on April 24, 2008


The research, being published Friday in the journal Science, yielded the first molecular data confirming the widely held hypothesis of a close dinosaur-bird ancestry, the American scientific team reported.

I'm not sure how this is the first evidence since the same group published these results last April.
posted by euphorb at 1:08 PM on April 24, 2008


So really, cats now are just attacking birds as payback?
posted by drezdn at 1:08 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sort of related: the world's most dangerous bird.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:15 PM on April 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


What I find interesting is that all birds, even flightless birds, are two-legged, and two winged (even if they use them for swimming, like penguins), where as plenty of dinosaurs were four-legged. Why did the flying dinosaurs survive into modern birds, but the ground-based ones all die out?
posted by fings at 1:17 PM on April 24, 2008


Lies. I can't believe you'd all be so easily hoodwinked by false evidence planted in the rocks by Satan.
posted by slatternus at 1:17 PM on April 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


Satan? You mean it's not a Holy Joke?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:19 PM on April 24, 2008


Um, if they were exothermic and didn't (for the most part) fly, there's not much use for feathers.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:21 PM on April 24, 2008


Who said they were exothermic? The impression I got was that most people in the field had kind of shuffled away from the idea that Dinosaurs were cold-blooded.
posted by Weebot at 1:26 PM on April 24, 2008


kirth gerson: you can totally see it in that bird from your link. the bony crest on its head cinches it for me.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:31 PM on April 24, 2008


What I find interesting is that all birds, even flightless birds, are two-legged, and two winged (even if they use them for swimming, like penguins), where as plenty of dinosaurs were four-legged. Why did the flying dinosaurs survive into modern birds, but the ground-based ones all die out?
posted by fings at 4:17 PM on April 24


Four-winged dinosaur discovered in 2003.

Archaeopteryx May Have Had Four Wings.

The legs and wings are both appendages, so they always total 4. I hadn't heard that all birds are descended from the flying dinosaurs (though it's easy to conclude that). Quite possible the reason is food? A flying dinosaur can snatch food from the ocean. A land based dinosaur can't. If food becomes scarce on land (cold, meteor, etc) there may still be an abundance in the ocean, so those that fly can survive. Also, flying allows for looking for food over a larger area with a lower expenditure of energy.

For example, birds can fly south several hundred miles for the winter, but no land animal can. It would take to long and burn too much energy.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:32 PM on April 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


Now we just need to develop a grant that sets up an awesome action illustrator with every scientific research team involved with dinosaurs.

I AM TIRED OF IMAGINING DINOSAURS
posted by stresstwig at 1:37 PM on April 24, 2008 [11 favorites]


damn pastabagel. that's brilliant. i think you've got it exactly.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:38 PM on April 24, 2008


So what your saying is that cavemen and dinosaurs sort of did coexist?
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:01 PM on April 24 [+] [!]


Coexist? Hell, I just had one for lunch!
posted by lekvar at 1:39 PM on April 24, 2008


What are you doing eating cavemen?
posted by Class Goat at 1:42 PM on April 24, 2008


Enjoying every bite.
posted by lekvar at 1:49 PM on April 24, 2008


So the ancient Central Americans got it sort of right with that whole Feathered Serpent thing?
posted by lord_wolf at 1:50 PM on April 24, 2008 [5 favorites]


"Dinosaur" is a term that includes two really big sub-groups who aren't that closely related. There's the Ornithischia, which includes things like Apatosaurus and Ankylosaur, and there's the Saurischia, which includes things like Tyrannosaur.

The birds are descended from the Saurischia, and it's long been known that many of those had feathers, at least to some extent. A velociraptor fossil was found which had clear evidence of being covered with feathers.

The Ornithischia, on the other hand, almost certainly did not have feathers. Fossil "mummies" of some of those have been found. The term means that soft tissues including skin were converted to stone. The skin was like that of a gila monster, hard and bumpy. Definitely not feathered.

Based on current evidence, it seems that feathers appeared among certain subgroups of the Saurischia after the split with the Ornithischia.
posted by Class Goat at 1:52 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


What fascinates me about evolution is how earlier species are almost always larger than their modern-day descendant. Dinosaurs are huge compared to even the largest birds. Even pre-historic insects are massive compared to today. More precisely, they start small, get massively huge in a short period of time, and then shrink back down.

It's as if evolution is simply a calculation designed to determine which is better - more of small things, or fewer large things?

It's fascinating because humans unintentionally do the same thing in their own designs. Old cars, boats, trains, buildings whatever are much larger, bulkier, heavier, and in general clumsier than modern equivalents. It takes a generation or two to work out the kinks in the mechanism (or in the case of life, demonstrating that the kinks are out by surviving a few generations) but once that happens, resource scarcity mandates smaller, lighter, faster, nimbler, etc.

Perhaps survival is a function of overall efficiency more than any single particular adaptation. Makes you wonder if it applies to civilizations as well. Maybe the strongest don't survive, but rather the one's who can do more with less.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:57 PM on April 24, 2008 [11 favorites]


There's the Ornithischia [...] and there's the Saurischia [...] birds are descended from the Saurischia

That's one of the most ass-backward things I've ever read.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:58 PM on April 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go admire the bluejay fledglings in the hedge.

Interesting evolutionary path from terrible lizard to cuddly bluejay.

I do not trust Nature. She's up to no good.
posted by three blind mice at 2:05 PM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


How is this going to effect Dinosaur Comics? Will Ryan have to change his art?
posted by wendell at 2:09 PM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


I do not trust Nature. She's up to no good.

Maybe she's trying to tame us. And either we accept it, or go the way of the old-school dinos. It's telling that the fiercer among the large birds are also the ones hovering closest to extinction.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:09 PM on April 24, 2008


In related news, possible dinosaur feathers found.
posted by Skeptic at 2:17 PM on April 24, 2008


Um, if they were exothermic and didn't (for the most part) fly, there's not much use for feathers.

So evolution IS wrong!
posted by Krrrlson at 2:32 PM on April 24, 2008


Okay, they found one dinosaur with a 'halo' of feathers, there's no evidence that all dinosaurs were covered in feathers like an ostrich. That's a complete misinterpretation.
posted by delmoi at 2:40 PM on April 24, 2008


70 million year old soft tissue is simply unbelievable. But there it is.

Now give me my Jurassic Park.
posted by dgaicun at 2:41 PM on April 24, 2008


In related news, possible dinosaur feathers found.

In unrelated news, definite horse feathers found.

Interestingly enough the rival schools in that film are named Darwin and Huxley.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:48 PM on April 24, 2008


What fascinates me about evolution is how earlier species are almost always larger than their modern-day descendant.

Including human beings. Cro-Magnons (who were fully human) were approx. 6 foot tall. This is larger than modern Americans and the populations in most other developed nations, and about as large the modern Dutch; who got that big only in the last 50 years or so - mainly from ingesting large amounts of pedophilia.
posted by dgaicun at 2:51 PM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


And you should see the way it shits!
posted by horsemuth at 2:52 PM on April 24, 2008


Dinosaurs weren't so much big birds as birds are tiny dinosaurs.
posted by Citizen Premier at 2:52 PM on April 24, 2008


Well I don't care one whit about what your Evil-loution "experts" may say - the creatures were CREATED INTO THE WORLD AS LIZARDS, just as good 'ol Ray Harryhausen intended em' to be.
posted by Smart Dalek at 2:57 PM on April 24, 2008


Bird eh? I now am going to choose to see them as giant parrots:

"Who's a pretty bird? Who is? Aww, your a pretty bird aren't you? Trex wanna cracker? Trex wanna cracker?"

*deafening roar*

"WANNA CRACKER!"

"Good birdy, that's a good Trex"

*tosses Trex cracker*
posted by quin at 3:18 PM on April 24, 2008 [5 favorites]


For a split second the image of T-rex clucking like a chicken waddled through my brain.

Boc boc boc boc BAGOOOCK!

hee hee
posted by The Power Nap at 3:25 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


"What fascinates me about evolution is how earlier species are almost always larger than their modern-day descendant. Dinosaurs are huge compared to even the largest birds. Even pre-historic insects are massive compared to today. More precisely, they start small, get massively huge in a short period of time, and then shrink back down."

One of the explanations that I've heard is that due to higher global temperatures, there was more energy and less impetus to be efficient. This gibes with the general trend of insects being bigger in the tropics.
posted by klangklangston at 3:27 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Higher global temperatures? Does that mean this global warming thing will bring us back the dinosaurs? KEEP GLOBAL WARMING!
posted by Mister Cheese at 3:50 PM on April 24, 2008


So what about pangolins? Sure, they're mammals. But they already bear a more-than-passing resemblance to a stegosaur. If I come back in a few million years, will pangolins develop full feathers and fly? (And, considering their skunk-like behavior, would this be desirable?)
posted by SPrintF at 4:36 PM on April 24, 2008


This is, of course, hugely fascinating in its own right.

Also fascinating:
This seems to me, if true, a potentially unprecedented shift in a deeply cherished cultural concept. Them big scaly dinos is everywhere in every medium both hi-brow and low. I'm kinda excited to observe the slow shift in popular culture from this to this. Will people reject it? How will class and education affect the depiction of dinosaurs and the acceptance of feathery dinos? Will this revelation, and the resulting cultural shift, shed light on other such social phenomena, such as crypto-zoology or mythology (as lord_wolf suggests)?

Dinos symbolize so much: evolution, the reach of science, the terrible awesome scope of nature, childhood imagination, fossil fuels, extinction. How will these powerful symbols survive this shift? How will we few the reams and reams of apparently erroneous dinosaur related culture and media?

Interestingly enough, the cultural love affair with dinos coincides with a huge boom in mass produced media. One could hypothesize that giant scaly lizards are so ingrained in the cultural consciousness because of their popular graphical qualities in relation to this media boom. Will big scaly lizards one day be one of those cultural markers of our era, like say, top hats and steam engines were for the Victorian era?

Damn, we live in exciting times.*


*You know....exciting times for geeks. Like us! Yay!!!
posted by es_de_bah at 5:02 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


How will we VIEW the Reams and reams...
*ahem*
I'm heady with the rich intoxication of a shifting symbolic structure.
posted by es_de_bah at 5:05 PM on April 24, 2008


es_de_bah: that's the part that fascinate me too--particularly what this means for our ideas about our own fate in the future and the possibility of extinction. in a way, this means the dinosaurs never really died off. instead, they evolved. that's a huge shift in our understanding of earth's natural history.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:31 PM on April 24, 2008


When I first went to Seattle before my freshman year at the U, my family went for a celebratory dinner at the Union Square Grill, before they would leave me to years of dehydrated noodles and booze rations. One of the special appetizers that night was ostrich medallions in a mushroom demi-glace. Having never been offered ostrich before, we asked the waiter what it was like.

His reply: "Well, many people expect ostrich to taste like chicken. However, the consistency and even flavor of the meat is closer to a filet of beef. You see, the ostrich is actually of the same order as ratites, and is more closely related to dinosaurs than it is to chickens." He went on to explain further how muscular structure and blood flow related to the the qualities of meat, as we nodded along, appreciatively savoring his tasty information aperitif.

The revelations were both stunning and unexpected, but he was an older gent and he really seemed to know his stuff. We ordered the dish and when it came, it was indeed as he described: like a prime cut of filet mignon - absolutely delcious. I had no reason to doubt my waiter after that and have always told anyone who cared to listen about how dinosaurs are now farmed by humans, and how excellent they taste in a brown sauce. And as this dino-ostrich connection was revealed to me around 10 years ago, I am super pleased to see that our former waiter has finally gotten his papers published.
posted by krippledkonscious at 5:40 PM on April 24, 2008 [13 favorites]


The main theory about insect size in the Permian holds that their size was enabled by the higher oxygen content in the Permian atmosphere. Insects don't have the complex closed circulatory system that vertebrates have, which limits their size based on distance that oxygen can diffuse at various concentrations.

One of the explanations that I've heard is that due to higher global temperatures, there was more energy and less impetus to be efficient.

I'd think that there would always be selection for those species which are more efficient than their competitors.
posted by lostburner at 5:48 PM on April 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Sort of related: the world's most dangerous bird."
try dinosaur bird vs bird dinousaur
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 6:27 PM on April 24, 2008


There's the Ornithischia [...] and there's the Saurischia [...] birds are descended from the Saurischia

That's one of the most ass-backward things I've ever read.


I agree. This has got to be backwards, no?
posted by autodidact at 6:28 PM on April 24, 2008


I'd think that there would always be selection for those species which are more efficient than their competitors.

When energy is abundant, efficiency confers no reproductive or survival advantage. Or at least, confers less of an advantage than large body mass which would give the strength and heft to take a greater share of that energy.
posted by autodidact at 6:32 PM on April 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


autodidact for the win!
(which, mind you, is a great catch-phrase)
posted by es_de_bah at 6:54 PM on April 24, 2008


This is larger than modern Americans and the populations in most other developed nations, and about as large the modern Dutch; who got that big only in the last 50 years or so - mainly from pooping dimes.


fixed that for you.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:41 PM on April 24, 2008


When FUCK-OFF GURT CHICKENS Ruled the Earth!
posted by Abiezer at 9:38 PM on April 24, 2008


Um, if they were exothermic and didn't (for the most part) fly, there's not much use for feathers.

Courtship.
posted by owhydididoit at 9:52 PM on April 24, 2008


Raptor 2.0
posted by owhydididoit at 10:01 PM on April 24, 2008


Well, to be totally pedantic about it, the tests they did were proteomic, not genomic. Protein sequences are enough to do phylogenetic reconstructions, though, and that's how they confirm the similarity to birds.

Amazing that collagen could survive that long under the kinds of conditions necessary for fossilization.
posted by chrisamiller at 12:22 AM on April 25, 2008


My next project: remove all the birds from Hitchcock's The Birds, and replace them with DINOSAURS.
posted by Elmore at 12:37 AM on April 25, 2008


It kinda makes more sense if they were birds.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 5:43 AM on April 25, 2008


And as this dino-ostrich connection was revealed to me around 10 years ago, I am super pleased to see that our former waiter has finally gotten his papers published.

This is just a further piece of evidence for what has long been known. They have divided dinosaurs into "bird-hipped" and "lizard-hipped" for as long as I remember, and I was a dinosaur loving child. They discuss this at length at the AMNH, e.g.
posted by mdn at 10:50 AM on April 25, 2008


autodidact: "There's the Ornithischia [...] and there's the Saurischia [...] birds are descended from the Saurischia

That's one of the most ass-backward things I've ever read.


I agree. This has got to be backwards, no?
"

From Wikipedia: "Ornithischia (pronounced /ɔrnɪˈθɪskiə/[1]) or Predentata is an order of beaked, herbivorous dinosaurs. The name ornithischia is derived from the Greek ornitheos (ορνιθειος) meaning 'of a bird' and ischion (ισχιον) meaning 'hip joint'. They are known as the 'bird-hipped' dinosaurs because of their bird-like hip structure, even though birds actually descended from the 'lizard-hipped' dinosaurs (the saurischians)."
posted by squarehead at 12:25 PM on April 25, 2008


wow, I did not remember that! funny. I just remembered the two groups and that one of them was the bird ancestor, and having met ostriches, I didn't doubt it. But I totally assumed the bird-hipped were the bird-dinosaurs.
posted by mdn at 5:49 PM on April 25, 2008


"the warm-blooded dinosaurs", julian may.
posted by lemuel at 6:25 PM on April 25, 2008


Perhaps survival is a function of overall efficiency more than any single particular adaptation. Makes you wonder if it applies to civilizations as well. Maybe the strongest don't survive, but rather the one's who can do more with less.
posted by Pastabagel at 4:57 PM on April 24 [10 favorites +] [!]

ask Arnold Toynbee.?
posted by lemuel at 6:30 PM on April 25, 2008


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