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Protofeathers vs feathers (was Re: Buffetaut about the spikey psittacosaur)

Tom Holtz wrote:

The latest Nature has a short letter by Eric Buffetaut (p. 147) about >the infamous "feathered
Psittacosaurus specimen. [snip] His conclusion was that the
integumentary structures were real, and that they were apparently different
from feathers & protofeathers in detail.

This reminds me of a question I've had for a while. What precisely is the difference between a "feather" and a "protofeather". Is it phylogenetic: birds have feathers, non-avian theropods have protofeathers? Or is it structural: if it looks like a feather, it is a feather. In other words, if the integumental appendage of a putative non-avian theropod resembles the contour feather or plumule of an undoubted bird (living or fossil) then it's a true feather; if the integumental appendage lacks a central shaft (such as the "sprays" or "tufts" described for some Yixian theropods), then it's a protofeather.

From my reading of the literature, and by quizzing paleontologists, it seems
the line between "feather" and "protofeather" is very blurred. And, like most things, it seems to be a matter of opinion.

For reasons unknown the plan failed: no joint study will be done,
and the present whereabouts of the specimen are unknown to Buffetaut.

Sheeesh!!! Another specimen lost to science. That really makes my blood boil.


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