Friday, August 8, 2014

Cuddly Dinosaurs and Feathers

That cute little critter isn't a bird, but it's covered in feathers: unless Kulinda insulation is something new. Newly-discovered, that is.
  1. Dinosaurs, Birds, and Scorpions: Tales of Survival
  2. Warm, Fuzzy — Dinosaurs
  3. Pelagornithids: "Like Creatures out of a Fantasy Novel"
Faced with our rapidly-expanding knowledge of Earth and the universe, folks have options.

A person can decide that fuzzy dinosaurs don't matter in the everyday life, which is true.

Another option is to decide that humanity had all the answers in 3000 B.C., 350 B.C., 1654 A.D., or some other arbitrary date: and actively reject what's been learned in since, say, 1666.

My preference is taking the universe "as is," acknowledging that we have learned a great deal: and most likely have a great deal more learn.

Hubris and Cautionary Tales

Without hubris, self-confidence above and beyond the call of reason, dialog like this wouldn't happen:
"Dr. James Xavier: I'm blind to all but a tenth of the universe.

"Dr. Sam Brant: My dear friend, only the gods see everything.

"Dr. James Xavier: My dear doctor, I'm closing in on the gods."
("X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes" (1963), via
I suspect that hubris contributed to hoaxes like Piltdown Man and archaeoraptor. Someone with runaway self-esteem might believe that nobody else had the brains to see through their forgery.

'Mad scientist' movies are entertainment, and a sort of cautionary tale: like Marlowe's Faustus, and the legend of Daedalus and Icarus. (September 20, 2011)

Cautionary tales can teach useful ideas: like 'trying to do the impossible is a bad idea;' or 'drinking and driving don't mix.'

On the other hand, I wonder if movies like "Island of Lost Souls," "The Fly," and "The Brain That Wouldn't Die," teach that curiosity is bad: particularly when it's scientific curiosity.

Humility: Acknowledging God

Like anything else we do, learning how this universe works involves ethics.

We're supposed to study this creation, and use our knowledge to develop new tools. But we're not supposed to put science, money, noodle recipes, or anything else ahead of God in our priorities. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2112-2114, 2292-2296)

Since I'm a Catholic, I believe that God created and is creating a good and ordered universe. We're made in the image of God, and "called to a personal relationship with God." (Catechism, 299, 301)

Studying this universe is one way to understand more about God, as long as we keep our priorities straight:
"...Our human understanding, which shares in the light of the divine intellect, can understand what God tells us by means of his creation, though not without great effort and only in a spirit of humility and respect before the Creator and his work...."
(Catechism, 299)
Humility, in the Catholic sense, means remembering that God's God: and I'm not.
"HUMILITY: The virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good. Humility avoids inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer (2559). Voluntary humility can be described as 'poverty of spirit' (2546)."
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, H)
Over the centuries, some Catholics have detested science: and denounced Catholics who were scientists.

Others — like Fibonacci, Robert Grosseteste, and Georgius Agricola — introduced Hindu-Arabic numbers to Europe, described controlled experiments and related them to demonstrative science, and launched mineralogy. Then there's Albertus Magnus, patron saint of scientists, and that's another topic. (February 23, 2014)

1. Dinosaurs, Birds, and Scorpions: Tales of Survival

(From David Bonnadonna and, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
("The dinosaur lineage that evolved into birds shrank in body size continuously for 50 million years...."
"How do you make a bird? Shrink a dinosaur for 50 million years"
Will Dunham, Reuters (August 1, 2014)

"Large flesh-eating dinosaurs evolved into small flying birds, but it did not happen overnight.

"An international team of scientists on Thursday [July 31] described an extraordinary evolutionary process that unfolded over a period of 50 million years in which a lineage of carnivorous dinosaurs shrank steadily and acquired numerous traits that led to the first appearance of birds.

"The researchers, using techniques developed by molecular biologists to reconstruct virus evolution, examined 1,500 anatomical traits in 120 different dinosaurs from the theropod group. These bipedal meat-eaters included giants like Tyrannosaurus rex and Giganotosaurus as well as the lineage that produced birds.

" 'Our study measured the rate of evolution of different groups of theropod dinosaurs,' said lead researcher Michael Lee, a paleontologist at the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum.

" 'The fastest-evolving group also happened to be ancestral to birds. So, ultimately, the most adaptable dinosaurs proved to be the best long-term survivors, and surround us today in their feathered splendor,' Lee explained...."
Theopods were dinosaurs that walked on two legs: and almost certainly include the remote ancestors of today's birds. Most were meat-eaters, but some ate plants, insects, or whatever was available.

Although I think it's likely that comparatively rapid change among some theropod dinosaurs helped them survive the Paleogene extinction event, there's more to adaptability than change.

Scorpions, for example, have been around for about 430,000,000 years — and survived the Great Dying, about a quarter of a billion years back. Now, that's durability. I suspect we'll prove to be about as durable, and that's yet another topic. (November 29, 2013)

Getting back to dinosaurs, birds, and all that, the earliest sort-of-a-bird that we know of is still Archaeopteryx. Protoavis may really be "first bird," as its name implies: but paleontologists don't have enough of the critter to be sure, not yet.

Earth's Story: There's More to Learn

Earth looked different, back in Archaeopteryx's day. A critter could walk from what's now South America to Africa, North and South America weren't connected, and shallow seas covered quite a bit of what's now dry land.

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Earth in the Late Jurassic, about 150,000,000 years ago.)

Some fossilized critters lived, or died, in water. The Burgess Shale fossil bed is a famous example. Not all fossils are from muddy water, though. Sauropods like Amphicoelias often lived in semi-arid places.

The point is that paleontologists aren't limited to evidence from one particular environment. Most dead plants and animals get recycled promptly, and do not become fossils. That still leaves scientists with a growing volume of fossils and other physical evidence.

We've come a long way since Nicolas Steno questioned the idea that fossils grow in the ground: but there's still a great deal left to learn.

'Beep! Beep!' Cretaceous Roadrunner

(From Nobu Tamura, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A velociraptor from what's now Mongolia. The critter may have had a lot more feathers than this.)
"...'What was impressive was the consistency of the size change along the dinosaur-to-bird transition - every descendent was smaller than its ancestor. The lineage was continually pushing the envelope of life at a smaller body size, little by little, over 50 million years," [lead researcher Michael] Lee said.

"The researchers completed a family tree of this dinosaur lineage and their bird descendants. These dinosaurs decreased in size from about 440 pounds (200 kg) to 1.7 pounds (0.8 kg) in 12 discernible steps....

"...The decrease in body size may have helped dinosaurs in the lineage that evolved into birds to take advantage of certain ecological niches that would have been off-limits to their larger relatives and to experiment with unique body shapes.

" 'It would have permitted them to chase insects, climb trees, leap and glide, and eventually develop powered flight,' Lee said...."
(Will Dunham, Reuters)
Velociraptor, one of the more famous theropod dinosaurs, may have had more feathers than that illustration. Even so, it reminds me of real roadrunners, which remind me of the old Road Runner cartoons, which don't have much to do with either paleontology or the various species of geococcyx.

Will Dunham's "...decrease in body size may have helped dinosaurs in the lineage that evolved into birds to take advantage of certain ecological niches..." can — with a little imagination — sound like a claim that some dinosaurs decided to become birds.

That could be the start of a nifty tale of speculative fiction, and that's yet again another topic.

I'm pretty sure that Mr. Dunham was trying to describe what Michael Lee and other scientists are learning about Earth's story in non-technical language.

2. Warm, Fuzzy — Dinosaurs

(From Th. Hubin, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Belgian and Russian researchers discovered an area filled with ancient dinosaur bones in Kulinda, south eastern Siberia"
(BBC News))
" 'Fluffy and feathery' dinosaurs were widespread"
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (July 24, 2014)

"All dinosaurs were covered with feathers or had the potential to grow feathers, a study suggests.

"The discovery of 150-million-year-old fossils in Siberia indicates that feathers were much more widespread among dinosaurs than previously thought.

"The find 'has completely changed our vision of dinosaurs', the lead researcher told BBC News...."
What's new here is that scientists found feathers on a ornithischian dinosaur. Up to now, the only definite dinosaur feathers had been on theropod dinosaurs.

Oddly enough, ornithischians are beaked dinosaurs with hips similar to today's bird hips. Theropods, the apparent ancestors of birds, have 'lizard hips;' and about a quarter of a million years back, a critter that's built a bit like a mammal had a beak. (December 13, 2013)

The mammal-like critter with a beak was a synapsid, which is another word for theropsid: animals with a particular set of features in the skull and teeth. synapsids or theopsids have been around for a long time, and still are: all mammals are synapsids, including humans.

I could be upset about being made from the stuff of Earth: or be glad that we know more about the 'clay' God used. I prefer reality, and see no problem with learning more about this astounding creation. (December 13, 2013)

Feathers, or Little Streamers, or Something Else

(From Andrey Atuchin, via Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol; used w/o permission.)
(Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus in its lakeside environment.)
"...The creature, called Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, was about 1m long, with a short snout, long hind legs, short arms, and five strong fingers.

"Its teeth show clear adaptations for chewing plants.

"Until now, fossilized evidence of feathery dinosaurs has come from China and from a meat eating group called theropods.

"The latest discovery, in Russia, is from a completely separate group of plant-eating dinosaurs called ornithischians - which account for half of all dinosaurs....

"...The find takes the origin of feathers millions of years further back in time than had previously been thought, said Dr Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, Belgium, who led the research....

"...'The fact that feathers have now been discovered in two distinct groups, theropods in China and ornithischians in Russia means that the common ancestor of these species which might have existed 220 million years ago also probably had feathers.'..."
(Pallab Ghosh, BBC News)
Bristol University's Professor Mike Benton says that all dinosaurs probably had feathers when they were young, but not necessarily as adults:
"...'Our research doesn't mean that all dinosaurs had feathers, especially as adults,' he [Professor Benton] told BBC News.

" 'Some will have had feathers as young animals and kept them throughout their lives. Others may have lost feathers as they grew up, and became large enough not to need them, or replaced feathers with scales or relied on bony plates in the skin for protection.'..."
(Pallab Ghosh, BBC News)
This fits the hypothesis that feathers started out as insulation and something dinosaurs used for signalling.

As usual, there's been a lively debate about what these feather-like structures are and what they mean:
"...But Dr Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum in London, has doubts.

" 'Most feathers have a branching structure,' he told BBC News.

" 'Instead these look like little streamers coming from a central plate. No bird has that structure in any part of its plumage and none of the developmental models that biologists use to understand the evolution of feathers includes a stage that has anything like that kind of anatomy.'..."
(Pallab Ghosh, BBC News)
Dr. Barrett may be right. On the other hand, when evidence doesn't support a particular model: maybe that model needs to be re-examined.

For example, in 1662 René Descartes came up with a model that explained how the Solar system formed. As scientists collected and analyzed more data, they came up with other models: in1734, 1749, 1812, 1854, 1904, 1917, 1937, 1944, 1960, 1962, and 1954. (June 27, 2014)

I'd be astonished, and a bit disappointed, if it turns out that this is the year when we know everything there is to know about the universe.

Getting back to fuzzy dinosaurs, and feathers that don't agree with Dr. Barrett's model: folks at the Natural History Museum in London may be right; X. Xu and Y Guo may be on the right track, with their eight stages of feather evolution; or none of today's explanations are a good fit with reality.

I'm not terribly surprised that none of today's birds have the sort of feathers, or feathery things, that sprouted from Kulindadromeus. Quite a lot can happen in 170,000,000 years: and has.

Fuzzy or feathered dinosaurs, background:

(From Ron Blakey, NAU Geology, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Earth in the Middle Jurassic, when Kulindadromeus lived near lakes: about 170,000,000 years ago.)

3. Pelagornithids: "Like Creatures out of a Fantasy Novel"

(From Liz Bradford, via, used w/o permission.)
"Pelagornis sandersi: Paleontologist Discovers Largest-Ever Flying Bird"
Enrico de Lazaro, (July 8, 2014)

"Pelagornis sandersi – a newly discovered extinct species of bird that lived in what is now North America about 28 million years ago – is the largest flying bird ever found, says Dr Daniel Ksepka, a paleontologist with Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut.

" 'Pelagornis sandersi could have traveled for extreme distances while crossing ocean waters in search of prey,' explained Dr Ksepka....

"...Pelagornis sandersi belongs to Pelagornithidae, an extinct group of birds known for bony tooth-like beak projections, large size, and highly modified wing bones.

" 'Pelagornithids were like creatures out of a fantasy novel – there is simply nothing like them around today. These giant birds occurred all over the globe for tens of millions of years, but vanished during the Pliocene, just three million years ago. Paleontologists remain uncertain about the cause of their demise,' Dr Ksepka said...."
Someone may say that Pelagornis sandersi never existed: because they aren't like any of today's birds. That wouldn't be the silliest claim ever made.

The Wikipedia page on Pelagornis sandersi cites an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and BBC News, putting the wingspan at between 6.1 and 7.4 meters, or 20 and 24 feet. That's a lot of bird.

These days, the Wandering albatross has the longest avian wingspan: 2.51 to 3.5 meters, or 8 feet 3 inches to 11 feet 6 inches.

Big Birds and Bumblebee Wings

(From Liz Bradford, via, used w/o permission.)
"...At 6.4 m, the wingspan of this bird was about two times that of the Royal Albatross(Diomedea exulans), the largest living flying bird.

"This wingspan places Pelagornis sandersi above some theoretical upper limits for powered flight in animals, but nonetheless it is clear from the skeleton the bird was a masterful flyer.

"Dr Ksepka estimated the length of the feathers based on the relationship between bone lengths and feather lengths in living birds...."
(Enrico de Lazaro,
Depending on who you read, the Royal albatross is either one or two species: the Northern royal albatross and Southern royal albatross. With average wingspans of about 3 meters, or 9.8 feet, they run second to the largest Wandering albatross — but they're still big birds, and about the size of the Wandering albatross.

I'm not terribly surprised that the world's largest — and extinct — bird is bigger than "some theoretical upper limits for powered flight in animals."

When scientists started studying flight at small scales, they found that critters like bumblebees can fly: thanks to the viscosity of air, dynamic stall effects, and asynchronous muscles that vibrate faster than the insect's nerve impulses. And that's — another topic.

More of my take on Earth's unfolding story, and getting a grip:

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