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Dinosaurs, the Media and Andy Warhol

Keith Thomson

How Tyrannosaurus Got Its Feathers

The chief thing we know about Tyrannosaurus rex, the fabled king of the Late Cretaceous, is that we still have much to learn about it, which should be a signal for caution, although it is also a license for speculation. There are only 25 or so specimens of T. rex, most incomplete, even though the species may have survived for several million years and tens of thousands of them, if not more, must have lived at one time or another.

In popular imagination, T. rex started out as a ferocious tyrant. How are the mighty fallen, however! In 2001, Warhol's curse struck T. rex and ushered in a drastic makeover for the capo di capo of dinosaurs. (How easy it is to fall into the style!) It had already been noised about that the thing was really only a scavenger of something else's kills, more a hyena than a lion. By May 2001, T. rex had become cuddly and possibly even covered with feathers. By October, it had become the "Woody Allen of dinosaurs," even neurotic.

This may turn out to be a just-not-so story. T. rex is a member of a large group of dinosaurs called theropods. The idea that theropod dinosaurs and birds are related is very old, dating back at least to T. H. Huxley and now having much modern support. So far, so good. But how did T. rex get feathers? In 1999, National Geographic magazine published a story under the title "Feathers for T. rex" in which an amazing new find from China, intermediate between a bird and a dromaeosaur, was described. Amazing indeed; it was a fake. In April 2001 in Nature, Qiang Ji et al. published an account of a new Chinese theropod that had evidence of a kind of proto-feathers. Once again the media homed in on Tyrannosaurus: "Maybe even mighty Tyrannosaurus rex had feathers," and "Maybe baby tyrannosaurus looked something like a cute, fuzzy baby chick," said Perhaps the best line went to science writer Deborah Smith of the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, April 27, 2001: "T-Rex in a feather boa turns heads among fossil hunters." (T-rex instead of T. rex seems very popular with journalists.)

Next, Jim Kirkland of the Utah Geological Survey and Doug Wolfe of Mesa Southwest Museum released an account of a new North American theropod—Nothronychus—at a Discovery Channel press conference. Nothronychus was evidently a vegetarian but with "bird-like characters and ? probably covered with feathers, said the scientists" (Reuters, June 19, 2001), to the newspapers' delight. But was there any evidence? At the press conference it was stated that no feathers were found with Nothronychus. Certainly none have been found with Tyrannosaurus. So far the sequence is as follows: T. rex is related (but not closely) to Nothronychus, where there is no evidence of feathers; Nothronychus is more closely related to the Chinese dinosaur Beipaosaurus, where there is disputed evidence of proto-feathers. Score: feathers 3, logic 0.

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