Feathers are what distinguishes birds from other existing lifeforms; but they’re also what connects them to the creatures of yore. Over the last two decades, thousands of fossils unearthed in China's Liaoning Province have confirmed what paleontologists long suspected: Dinosaurs rocked feathers long before birds took to the sky. The findings debunk the theory that feathers evolved specifically for flight, and opens a Pandora’s box to the other purposes they may have served.
A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, titled “Dinosaurs Among Us,” allows us to dwell in the wondrous possibilities. The exhibit is not your typical paleontological scene. It pairs chalky, jagged fossils with models and drawings of dinosaurs extraordinary plumage. Visitors are also invited to build their own flying dinos and explore the anatomical and behavioral connections between birds and their prehistoric kin.
The displays offer a life-sized look at a host of bizarre and terrifying feathered beasts—like the Citipati osmolskae (pictured above)—that blur the line between birds and dinosaurs. And while giant dino chickens are bound to peak interest, it's the revamped models of the bristly, 23-foot-long Tyrannosaur and ruffled, dead-eyed Velociraptor that really stir the imagination. Meanwhile, illustrated reimaginings, like the ones below, further mystify this ancient era of time.
But what exactly did these ground-bound, alien-looking creatures need feathers for? One of the exhibit’s central themes is that feathers are not just a conduit for flight: Increasing speed and agility, regulating body temperature, and attracting mates are a few of the ways scientists think dinosaurs may have wielded their plumes. Some species shook their dramatic tail feathers to attract members of the opposite sex, just like peacocks and Superb Bird-of-Paradises do today. Others used them to build up a fierce demeanor. One lethal Velociraptor, discovered in South Dakota, sported large quill knobs on it forearms, which could have been used to pin down prey. Meanwhile, the Zhenyuanlong suni—a 6-foot-long Velociraptor described as a "fluffy, feathered poodle from hell"—may have used its giant quills to intimidate other dinosaurs and shelter its chicks. “There's a diversity of [dinosaur] feathers," Gregory Erickson, a professor of Anatomy and Vertebrate Paleobiology at Florida State University, says, "and that's the case of modern birds now."
As more discoveries uncover the evolution of feathers, the difference between birds and dinosaurs becomes more obsolete. "Birds are virtually, in every way, living modern dinosaurs," Michael Novacek, the Senior Vice President of Paleontology at AMNH, said during a preview of the exhibit. Recent findings indicate that distantly related herbivores, like Stegosaurus and Triceratops, sported quill-like structures, too. But it’s the larger carnivorous dinosaurs called theropods (the group that avians evolved from) that first bore the feathery structures scientists believe contributed to modern-day flight.
”I think . . . wings actually evolved as a display structure or an egg-brooding structure, and then these dinosaurs suddenly found themselves with big sheets on their arms that had aerodynamic properties,” says Stephen Brusatte, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh who helped describe the demonic Zhenyuanlong sun. “That's probably how flight began—by accident.”