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Feathers? The fossils say yes!



There isn't a chihuaha's chance in the ninth circle
of hades that these things are just typical reptilian scales, in case you
were wondering.
        I saw the photos. Sinosauropteryx is beyond any doubt
covered with short, hairlike insulatory structures that I would assume to
be feathers! It is truly an incredible fossil. The feathers run, as noted,
from the back of the neck down toward the tail, and are distributed in a
sort of patchy manner- in little clumps- up and down the top and bottom of
the tail. A close look at the underside of the neck did not reveal
feathers, but did reveal their imprint- I would guess that these feathers
would be on the other slab, not shown in the photos, and this may be where
about half the tail feathers are as well. As for what it is? It is, as has
been mentioned before, most certainly not a bird, it appears to have a
booted pelvis, however, and so  it is a tetanure. Gauthier was there
and said he couldn't really determine beyond that- the skull is pretty
well crushed. There is also another of these, but it did not appear to
have any trace of the feathers (although it seems likely that closer
inspection could reveal otherwise). Ostrom was quite taken by the
pictures, which had been brought over by a Chinese paleontologist whose
name I can't remember.

[Nick had some reservations about spreading the following
 information because the researchers apparently didn't want it to get
 any press, but to me it seems the following can be considered as
 something you've heard about through the "rumor mill".  Please
 consider it to be like gossip (i.e. something you know you shouldn't
 spread but probably will anyways :-) until you hear about it in
 another source.  -- MR ]

        On top of that, they had some strange bird- I forget whether or
not the skull was there, but they were quite beautifully preserved, in a
sort of flattened posture, arms and legs splayed out to the side. They
lacked- get this- the long, bony tail of Archaeopteryx! I saw a
reconstruction of Confuciusornis that also lacked the long tail. If you
will  recall the paper, I believe this part was drawn in with dotted
lines. 
 The animals were covered in feathers identical to what was on the
theropod, as far as I could tell, except, of course, for the flight
feathers. For all I know, they could have been Confuciusornis, but get
this- they had, coming off the tail, two ENORMOUS long feathers,
sticking out the length of the bird's body or more, mostly bare of any
barbs, except at the end where barbs formed little spear-shaped
vanes. Three immediate paralells come to mind- rhamphorhynchoid tails,
and the tailfeathers of the African Whydda (spelling?) bird, which has
long rachi with big flaglike vanes at the end, and the standard-winged
nightjar, which has the same thing, just adapted from a pair of
secondary feathers. I would guess that they were display structures,
since they paralell the Whydda so closely, but the rachis was quite
stiff, so maybe it isn't impossible they served as some sort of
rudders. There were two of these birds on the slab.
        The birds seemed to resemble Confuciusornis closely, as far as I
could tell. I have no idea what this means for the evolution of the
pygostyle, whether this bird's shortened tail is homologous or merely
analogous to the modern bird's shortened tail. 
        Nick Longrich