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"Jurassic Park" Raptors Had Feathers, Fossil Suggests

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
September 20, 2007
 
Bumps on the forearm bone of a velociraptor fossil suggest the predators were adorned with fluffy feathers, a new study says.

The dinosaurs, portrayed as horse-size in the movie Jurassic Park, were actually not much bigger than a modern-day turkey.

"If people saw this animal now, they would think it's a really strange-looking bird," said study lead author Alan Turner, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a graduate student at Columbia University.

"Instead of the more reptilian-looking versions that Steven Spielberg used in Jurassic Park, these would be much fluffier, much [more] feathery animals with what looks like wings on their forearms."

Raised Knobs

Turner and colleagues examined a velociraptor fossil in Mongolia's Gobi Desert and found the forearm had regularly spaced bumps that would have held the quills of secondary feathers.

The velociraptor fossil was found in 1998, buried in 80-million-year-old sandstone deposits. (Related news: "Massive Birdlike Dinosaur Unearthed in China" [June 13, 2007].)

The fossil shows that the animal was probably about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long and weighed about 30 pounds (15 kilograms).

When Turner studied one of the forearm bones of the specimen, he immediately noticed bumps, known as quill knobs, running along the bone's backside.

In many modern birds, raised knobs along the forearm bone are where secondary feathers attach to the bone.

"Once you examine these knobs, you can kind of rule out that it's some sort of preservational artifact"—in other words, the knobs could not be explained by changes to the fossil during its millions of years underground.

The Mongolian fossil had six bumps about 0.2 inch (0.4 centimeter) apart.

The researchers estimate that the spacing would allow for a total of 14 quill knobs and feathers on the velociraptor's arms.

The study will appear in tomorrow's issue of the journal Science.

Bird Ancestors

Researchers had previously found evidence of feathers in many theropods, the group of two-legged dinosaurs that includes velociraptors. Theropods encompass a nonflying family of dinosaurs called dromaeosaurs, or raptors.

The latest discovery adds to a wealth of evidence that theropods gave rise to modern birds, scientists say. (Related: "New 'Mini' Dinosaur a Step in Bird Evolution Path" [September 6, 2007].

Kevin Padian is curator of the University of California Museum of Paleontology and was not involved in the study.

"This is both expected and welcome—expected because we know feathers were present in other members of this group and welcome because it's nice to have the confirmation," Padian said.

"Probably the few scientists who still don't accept that birds evolved from these dinosaurs will try to explain away the evidence," he said.

"But this finding certainly passes the walks-like-a-duck, talks-like-a-duck test."

Determining which nonflying dinosaurs might have had feathers is difficult, however, because feathers are generally not preserved in the fossil record.

"The [fossil] deposits that have typically preserved these nonflying dinosaurs with feathers have a preservational bias toward very small animals," lead author Turner said.

"We don't know much about what the large members of the [dromaeosaurs] group looked like externally," he added.

"What this discovery helps to establish is that even as these groups go through these evolutionary trends toward increased size, it appears that they are retaining their feathers.

"That's an important piece of information, since many of these dinosaur groups start off small, have feathers, and then get big."

Feather Function

Researchers are not sure what the velociraptor's feathers were used for, however.

"It's often difficult to determine function from specific structures in the fossil record, because most features in most living animals don't have one specific function," Turner said.

Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, was not involved in the study.

"The presence of quill knobs in an animal like this one can be explained by the fact that these dinosaurs used their feathered limbs to generate additional thrust during running," Chiappe said.

Chiappe speculates feathered dinosaurs ran while flapping their feathered forelimbs, and that flight may have originated as a byproduct of this behavior.

Turner said the raptors' feathers would certainly not have been used for flying.

Velociraptors are too large and their forelimbs are much too short in relation to their body size to support flying, or even gliding.

The feathers may, however, be a leftover feature of their ancestors.

"Potentially the [feathers] could have been used in the ancestor of birds and velociraptors for flight, or more likely as a gliding function," Turner said.

The animals may also have used the feathers for insulation or as a display to attract mates.

"Whittling it down to the exact function is probably something we won't be able to do," Turner said. "But we can continue to narrow it down."

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