‘Jane’ probably had feathers

‘Jane’ probably had feathers

By Rod Myers

At PaleoFest 2003, I asked Peter Larson, the world-renowned paleontologist and director of the Black Hills Institute, if he thought “Jane”, Burpee’s Nanotyrannus, had feathers during a time in her life. “Yes,” he replied, “and she probably had them as an adult and not just as a juvenile, as we belive Tyrannosaurus rex did. Jane, being a Nanotyrannus, was smaller in length and more slender, and it needed the feathers for warmth. I believe feathers were a great adaptation to preseve heat, and, later on in evolution, became the ultimate flying aid.”

I was a little surprised by his statements and a little excited, but deep down, I thought there was a good possibility that “Jane” wore feathers. I asked Peter why he was so sure. “Tyrannids (the Tyrannosaurus family) evolved from the same predatory stock that birds evolved from,” he replied, “and they’re finding most of this group had feathers.”

Larson went on to say he couldn’t predict what kind of feathers Jane would have. Many of the dinos that had feathers didn’t have true assymetrical flight feathers. Some had proto feathers that were either quill-like and/or symmetrical, which are the closest to true flight feathers, which are asymmetrical. Larson stands firm on the grounds that young T-rexes had feathers. “T. rex was a reptile, and birds evolved from reptiles,” he explained, “but T. rex was more related to the hummingbird than to the crocodile.”

T. rex wouldn’t need feathers or proto feathers to keep warm once it reached adult size, which may have taken only four or five years. The larger the body, the easier it is for it to maintain body heat.

Fossil finds in China have shed a lot of light on the topic of feathers on dinosaurs. One ancient lake bed in particular has yielded a bounty of small dinosaur fossils with feathers. The conditions were right at specific times millions of years ago where silt covered fresh carcasses before they had a chance to decompose. This is critical in forming a cast for softer bio material like feathers.

The last 10 to 15 years have yielded the best feathered dino fossils in China. One was just featured in Nature magazine. This dinosaur, named Microraptor, is the smallest known non-avian theropod (predatory dinosaur). Its striking features revealed an abundance of feathers including long flight feathers on its arms, legs and tail. This creature probably used the feathers to glide (see drawing).

Back to Jane—Will our dino star be depicted with a partial or total covering of feathers or proto feathers? I sense a debate. What do you think she’ll be wearing? P.S.—Robert Bakker thinks Jane had feathers.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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