New four-winged feathered dinosaur?
28 January 2003
Table of Contents
Papers have been flapping with new headlines about the latest in a long line of alleged dinosaur ancestors of birds. This one is claimed to be a sensational dinosaur with feathers on its hind legs, thus four ‘wings’.1 This was named Microraptor gui—the name is derived from words meaning ‘little plunderer of Gu’ after the paleontologist Gu Zhiwei. Like so many of the alleged feathered dinosaurs, it comes from Liaoning province of northeastern China. It was about 3 feet (1 metre) long from its head to the tip of its long tail, but its body was only about the size of a pigeon.
Microraptor gui has led to renewed interest in an almost forgotten idea that bird evolution went through a tetrapteryx phase (from Greek τέσσαρες tessares four / τέταρτος tetartos fourth; πτέρυξ pteryx wing).2 However, once more there are serious problems with this ‘evidence’. Readers wishing to skip the detail can jump to to summary.
We have often pointed out that there is nothing in the creationist model that states that dinosaurs could not have feathers (or fur, for that matter). However, nothing so far has been remotely convincing. The main candidates are simply collagen fibres, or are on animals that are not dinosaurs but flightless birds like Caudipteryx. [Update: see Dr Feduccia’s recent research supporting the identification as collagen, ‘Do Featured Dinosaurs Exist?: Testing the Hypothesis on Neontological and Paleontological Evidence’, by Alan Feduccia, Theagarten Lingham-Soliar, and J. Richard Hinchliffe, Journal of Morphology 266:125–166, 2005; Published Online: 10 October 2005 (DOI: 10.1002/jmor.10382).]
The leading paleo-ornithologist and evolutionary critic of the dino-to-bird dogma, Dr Alan Feduccia, who is an evolutionist himself, sounded a note of caution about the ‘feathered dinosaurs’ in general in an interview with the evolutionary Discover magazine (below, emphasis added).3 It certainly seems strange that all these ‘feathered dinosaurs’ come from a single province of China—the same place as the Archaeoraptor hoax came from. Indeed, the holotype (first named specimen) of Microraptor was in fact part of this hoax!4 However, neither our case nor Feduccia’s against previous ‘feathered dinosaurs’ has ever depended on this particular problem, and the same is true of Microraptor gui, as will be shown.
Discover: What about all the other evidence for feathered dinosaurs?
Feduccia: When we see actual feathers preserved on specimens, we need to carefully determine if we are looking at secondarily flightless birds that have retained feathers and only superficially resemble dinosaurs, or if the specimens are in fact related to dinosaurs. That’s a difficult issue to deal with right now, given the existence of fake fossils.
Discover: So far, only one feathered dinosaur, Archaeoraptor, has been publicly acknowledged as a forgery. You think there are others?
Feduccia: Archaeoraptor is just the tip of the iceberg. There are scores of fake fossils out there, and they have cast a dark shadow over the whole field. When you go to these fossil shows, it’s difficult to tell which ones are faked and which ones are not. I have heard that there is a fake-fossil factory in northeastern China, in Liaoning Province, near the deposits where many of these recent alleged feathered dinosaurs were found.
Journals like Nature don’t require specimens to be authenticated, and the specimens immediately end up back in China, so nobody can examine them. They may be miraculous discoveries, they may be missing links as they are claimed, but there is no way to authenticate any of this stuff.
Discover: Why would anyone fake a fossil?
Feduccia: Money. The Chinese fossil trade has become a big business. These fossil forgeries have been sold on the black market for years now, for huge sums of money. Anyone who can produce a good fake stands to profit.
It is not unreasonable to apply Feduccia’s scepticism to the current find. Even the original paper should make us cautious. Commenting on the paper point-by-point:
Notes on the specimens. Of the six specimens in the present study, IVPP V13476 was collected by the Liaoxi expedition team of the IVPP in 2001, IVPP V13352, V13320, V13477 and V13351 were purchased by the IVPP during the field seasons of 2001 and 2002, and TNP00996 was purchased by Tianjin Museum of Natural History in 2002.
It is highly suspicious to rely on purchased fossils, since one has no proof of the geological context or whether they have been doctored. As Dr Feduccia says, no-one from Nature would have checked the authenticity of the specimen. Dr Storrs Olson, Curator of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. has also noted that Nature’s reliability on this issue is highly suspect:
‘The idea of feathered dinosaurs and the theropod origin of birds is being actively promulgated by a cadre of zealous scientists acting in concert with certain editors at Nature and National Geographic who themselves have become outspoken and highly biased proselytizers of the faith.’
It’s vital to note that only one of the supposed feathers was found on the specimen actually collected by the authors (IVPP V13476). And this ‘feather’ was sufficiently indistinct that the authors could not discern its asymmetry (question mark in Table 1). Furthermore, this fossil that the authors actually collected was so unexciting that it did not even warrant having its photograph displayed for the reader to verify the feather claim. There are 18 illustrations of fossils in this paper, but all are of the purchased fossils. All the illustrated feathers (16 photos) are on the bought fossils, but especially IVPP V13352 (see Table 1). We have to rely solely on the authors’ claim that the fossil they collected had a feather on it and that it was clearly part of the Microraptor gui fossil.
…We observed that there are some pieces of blocks mistakenly glued to the specimens; …
So they admit that there were some dubious aspects to these specimens!
…however, we excluded all the dubious parts from the study (Fig. 1b). We carefully examined the specimens under the microscope and with high-resolution X-ray computerized tomography (CT) to test the authenticity of one of the studied specimens [ref.] (IVPP V13352) …
But this is involves X-rays, so can test only for the authenticity of the bones, not the feathers.
…and can guarantee the accuracy of the information that we provide in this study.
Wow, that guarantee should reassure us all, despite the history of frauds from that region, and the fact that China has had major industries of faking ‘ancient’ artefacts for many years, e.g. ‘Ming’ vases, etc.! However, to be fair, it’s extremely unlikely that the lead researcher Dr Xu Xing himself would ever be part of any deliberate fraud, since he was one of those who exposed Archaeoraptor.
Once more, the ‘dating’ is problematic—the researchers ‘date’ their finds at 124–128 Ma (million years) ago. But this is yet another supposed ‘ancestor’ for birds that lived ~25 Ma after the first undoubted bird Archaeopteryx (153 Ma) and even about 10 Ma after the beaked bird Confuciusornis (135 Ma)!
As Feduccia puts it, you can’t be older than your grandfather! Some of his critics argue that sometimes a grandfather can outlive his grandson. This is correct, but it boggles the mind that such an ‘advanced’ beaked bird like Confuciusornis could appear 10 million years before there is a trace of its ‘feathered dino ancestors’. More importantly, one of the major ‘evidence’ of evolution is how the evolutionary order supposedly matches the fossil sequence. Therefore the gross mismatch with the dino-birds is a severe challenge to the evolutionary explanation.
Of course, the above simply grants their evolutionary assumptions for the purpose of the argument, and lays aside their problems (see Q&A pages on Young Earth Evidence and Radiometric Dating?—creationists don’t regard the fossil sequence as a sequence of age but a sequence of burial by the Flood and its after-effects).
Another problem in this case was revealed inadvertently by Dr Angela Milner, Associate Keeper of Palaeontology at London’s Natural History Museum, who was quoted as follows:
‘With the dino-birds of Liaoning, the actual material, the keratin from the feathers, is still there. The discovery is stunning.’5
However, keratin is a protein, which is a type of condensation polymer, and is subject to degradation into its monomers. Well known observational evidence from chemistry shows that proteins could not possibly last for millions of years. It’s true that keratin is quite stable for a protein, but it is less stable than many man-made polymers. Feathers compost quite readily, and hair and skin soon disappear even in buried animals.
Later, Dr Milner said that she was more tentative than the above statement the press attributed to her (and there is no reason to doubt her). However, it would not be the first time that keratin has been found in bird fossils ‘dated’ millions of years ago.6 So while we can’t be too dogmatic about M. gui specificially, the principle still stands.
The dominant theory about bird evolution is the cursorial one, where flying birds evolved from running creatures (usually dinosaurs) which flapped their forelimbs for various proposed reasons. The latest theory, published a few days before this tetrapteryx paper, was to aid traction as they ran up slopes (see Yet another flap about dino-to-bird evolution).
Dr Feduccia has always championed the older arboreal theory, where birds evolved from gliding creatures. But this theory has long been under a cloud, because of strong arguments against it from cursorialists, and the weight of the current dino-to-bird paradigm.
However, although M. gui is supposed to be a dinosaur, and Feduccia thinks dinosaurs could not have been ancestral to birds, he described M. gui as ‘a new kind of animal that we’ve never seen before’, and said that its characteristics ‘argue against a ground-up origin of flight.’7 It’s not surprising that Feduccia would be favourably disposed towards this creature, but it doesn’t seem right that other evolutionary propagandists have jumped on this bandwagon even though they are known ardent cursorialists. For example, the theory that birds evolved from a glider such as M. gui is incompatible with any cursorial theory, including the recent one about inclined running. The researchers say:
‘The metatarsus feathers [i.e. between the toes and ankle] are inconsistent with the suggestions that basal dromaeosaurs [i.e. ‘raptors’] are cursorial animals [refs.] because such long feathers on the feet would be a hindrance for a small cursorial animal.’1
Yet the popular press fosters the impression among the public that all this evidence is cumulative when in reality it is incongruous.
It’s important to note that even evolutionists acknowledge the difficulties in making the jump from a gliding stage to muscle-powered flight. Pondering Microraptor, Henry Gee noted in the Nature perspective cited:
‘Four wings is a perfect recipe for gliding, but not for powered, flapping flight.’8
But then he continued with a typical ‘just-so’ story, which hasn’t the slightest evidence either in direct observation or the fossil record:
‘When flight evolved in later dromaeosaurs and birds, the hindwing might have been lost and the hindlimbs reverted to walking and perching.’
Gee also pointed out that researchers have yet to study the hip and shoulder joints of Microraptor gui to see if this creature could have splayed its limbs to glide. A major distinguishing feature of dinosaurs is that they have column-like legs underneath the body, unlike other reptiles where they are sprawled out to the side.
Also, while the imagined transition from parachuting (where the ‘wings’ merely offer resistance to downwards movement through the air) to true gliding represents a major evolutionary hurdle in itself, the supposed development of the required musculature and skeletal frame for powered flight is an even greater obstacle. The main point of the wings in flapping flight is not to act as a moving parachute by directing air downwards and forcing the bird upwards by reaction. Rather, most researchers into bird flight agree that the flapping wings mainly direct air backwards to force the bird forward by reaction, so the airflow over the airfoil-shaped wings generates lift (see From grasping arms to flying wings). Therefore flapping flight also requires highly controlled muscle movements to achieve flight, which in turn requires that the brain has the program for these movements. Ultimately, this requires new genetic information that a non-flying creature lacks.
While this four-winged creature has probably sold many newspapers, there are many questions about its status as the ancestor of birds. They include:
- The dubious nature of the evidence itself, since it all comes from the same area as the Archaeoraptor hoax, and the first named ‘Microraptor’ was actually part of this.
- The ‘dates’ are the opposite of what evolution would predict, because M. gui is a lot ‘younger’ than undoubted birds, even ones with beaks.
- This latest discovery would refute the dominant paradigm of the cursorial theory.
- The imagined transitions from land animal to parachutist to glider to powered flier would each have required substantial new genetic information to have arisen. And a dinosaur’s column-like legs underneath the body could not have splayed out to adopt a gliding posture without substantial modification to hip and joints. Return to top
Evidently some evolutionists have ‘got to’ Feduccia for the fact that creationists have cited his damaging arguments against dino-bird evolution. Discover therefore tried to close the ranks by asking a leading question.3 So we had better head this off at the pass in case skeptics spout all this as ‘evidence’ for their paranoia about creationists ‘misquoting’. This and Feduccia’s response is indented, and my point-by-point response is interspersed.
Discover: Creationists have used the bird-dinosaur dispute to cast doubt on evolution entirely.
A misrepresentation when it comes to Feduccia’s work. Rather, blame the evolutionists, e.g. the Skeptics at the Australian Museum, for using the dino-to-bird ‘evidence’ as ‘proof’ of evolution and against creation. It is perfectly in order to cite Feduccia’s severe criticisms as evidence against this specific evolutionary argument; after all, there can be no doubt that he is a world-class expert on fossil birds.
Also, Feduccia used dissimilarities in the development of bird and dino digits to argue strongly against the dino-to-bird theory. So it was totally legitimate to apply the same logic to the development of amphibian and amniote digits to argue against a far-bigger–picture aspect of evolution, i.e. that amniotes descended from amphibians—see Ostrich eggs break dino-to-bird theory.
Discover: How do you feel about that?
A tug at the heartstrings.
Feduccia: Creationists are going to distort whatever arguments come up, …
He should grace us all with a specific example, rather than an assertion.
…and they’ve put me in company with luminaries like Stephen Jay Gould, so it doesn’t bother me a bit.
Once again, see what we actually say about the late Dr Gould (Did Creationists ‘hijack’ Gould’s ideas?). Our main point is, there are a number of creationist alternatives consistent with both the Bible and available evidence, while the supporters of various evolutionary camps score mortal blows against the other camp. E.g. supporters of ‘jerky’ evolution (saltationism and its relative, punctuated equilibria) point out that the fossil record does not show gradualism, and that the hypothetical transitional forms would be disadvantageous. But supporters of gradual evolution point out that large, information-increasing changes are so improbable that one would need to invoke a secular miracle. Creationists agree with both: punctuational evolution can’t happen, and gradual evolution can’t happen—in fact, particles-to-people evolution can’t happen at all!
The same logic applies to the dinosaur-bird debate. It is perfectly in order for creationists to cite Feduccia’s devastating criticism against the idea that birds evolved ‘ground up’ from running dinosaurs (the cursorial theory). But the dino-to-bird advocates counter with equally powerful arguments against Feduccia’s ‘trees-down’ (arboreal) theory. The evidence indicates that the critics are both right—birds did not evolve either from running dinos or from tree-living mini-crocodiles. In fact, birds did not evolve from non-birds at all! This is consistent with the Biblical account that distinct kinds of birds were created on Day 5, while land animals were created on Day 6 (Gen. 1:20–25)
Note, we always make it very clear that Gould and Feduccia are evolutionists, and explain what they believe. E.g. my book Refuting Evolution has a chapter on birds which includes Feduccia’s support of the arboreal theory of bird evolution. It is also perfectly appropriate to quote them as ‘hostile witnesses’ who can’t be accused of believing what they do because of any creationist bias. However, to many evolutionists, a creationist quoting an evolutionist presenting evidence against a specific evolutionary ‘proof’ is ‘out of context’ by definition, because the person quoted still believes in evolution!
Archaeopteryx is half reptile and half bird any way you cut the deck, and so it is a Rosetta stone for evolution, whether it is related to dinosaurs or not.
Once again, when dino-to-bird dogmatists claim that Archaeopteryx is a feathered dinosaur, it is perfectly legitimate to cite Feduccia’s comment that this is ‘paleobabble’ because ‘Archie’ was clearly a ‘perching bird’.9 See also An anatomist talks about Archaeopteryx.
These creationists are confusing an argument about minor details of evolution with the indisputable fact of evolution:…
This is double talk, and merely closing ranks against creationists. This is the old trick of claiming ‘there is no doubt that evolution occurred; the only disagreement is about the mechanism.’
But modern evolutionary theory is all about providing a plausible mechanism for explaining life’s complexity without God. If the disputes undermine favoured mechanisms, then the materialist apologetic crumbles. The supporters of various evolutionary camps score mortal blows against the mechanisms proposed by rival camps, as shown above, so it’s perfectly reasonable for creationists to point this out.
…Animals and plants have been changing.
This is a classic equivocation or ‘bait-n-switch’. Of course, we have long pointed out that we don’t deny that things change (the Bible even predicts this); rather, we point out that evolution ‘from goo to you via the zoo’ requires changes which increase genetic information in the biosphere. See Definitions as slippery as eels. But in Feduccia’s case, it’s not likely to be conscious deception, but merely ignorance of what creationists actually say, because he’s never been an aggressive anti-creationist to my knowledge.
The corn in Mexico, originally the size of the head of a wheat plant, has no resemblance to modern-day corn. If that’s not evolution in action, I do not know what is.
Wow, so the best proof of goo-to-you evolution he can come up with is corn turning into corn?! But he has yet to prove that this is an increase in information, which would be required to turn scales into feathers or a reptile lung into a bird lung (something Feduccia never explains in his encyclopaedic book The Origin and Evolution of Birds10). Rather, this is yet another example of sorting or loss of previously-existing genetic information—this sort of change is in the opposite direction from evolution (see The evolution train’s a-comin’).
Note also a common phenomenon. An evolutionist who is an expert in one field thinks that the best evidence for evolution is in a totally different field, in which he does not speak as an authority. For example, a palaeontologist says, ‘The fossil record shows that most creatures appear fully formed, and an extreme rarity of transitional forms. But the embryologists have shown that early embryos look alike, which proves evolution.’ But an embryologist says, ‘Richardson showed that Haeckel faked the drawings purporting to show embryonic similarity. But the molecular biologists have shown that the similarity of DNA points to evolution from a common ancestor’. However, the molecular biologist says, ‘There are huge differences in DNA sequences; contradictory phylogenies; and intricate biological machinery, e.g. the rotary motors of the bacterial flagellum and F1-ATPase. But the paleontologists have shown that the fossils show an evolutionary sequence.’
Earlier in the dialogue, Feduccia stated:
The difference between feathers and scales is very, very small. You can transform bird scutes [the scales on bird feet] into feathers with the application of bone morphogenic protein.
This totally misses the point that the cells from which scutes are formed have the genetic information for feathers already present, but turned off. Somehow the chemical induced the genes coding for feathers to switch back on. Feduccia’s ‘evidence’ offers not the slightest support for the idea that the genetic information for feathers arose where none previously existed. It would be a totally different matter if bone morphogenic protein could transform scales into feathers on a reptile, which has no genetic information for feathers! Feduccia’s claim parallels an earlier misinformed claim that retinoic acid (vitamin A) could turn scales into feathers. See Putting Feathers on Reptiles and The strange recurring case of the feathered reptile for further explanation, and for electron micrographs showing the immense differences between feathers and scales. Also, feather proteins (φ-keratins) are biochemically different from skin and scale proteins (α-keratins).11
These simple mistakes by Feduccia once more illustrate the fact that even world-class experts are usually laymen outside their own field. So creationists have nothing to fear from them. Conversely, the major propagandists for evolution tend to be atheistic story-tellers like the eugenicist Richard Dawkins or ‘political animals’ like fellow atheistic anthropologist Eugenie Scott.
- Xu, X. et al., Four-winged dinosaurs from China, Nature 421(6921):335–340, 23 January 2003. Return to text.
- Beebe, C.W. A Tetrapteryx Stage in the Ancestry of Birds, Zooligica, New York, 1915. Return to text.
- Discover Dialogue: Ornithologist and Evolutionary Biologist Alan Feduccia Plucking Apart the Dino-Birds, Discover 24(2), February 2003. Return to text.
- Microraptor, Dinosauricon, accessed 24 January 2003. Return to text.
- Lee, A., Winged dinosaur fossils may show how life took to the skies, Straits Times, Singapore, 24 January 2003. Return to text.
- E.g., Schweitzer, M.H. et al., Keratin immunoreactivity in the Late Cretaceous bird Rahonavis ostromi, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19(4):712,1999. Return to text.
- Feduccia, A.; cited in: Wilford, J.N., 4-wing fossils shed light on flight origins, New York Times, 23 January 2003. Return to text.
- Gee, H., Fossil boosts trees-down start for flight, Nature Science Update; Perspective on Ref.1, 23 January 2003. Return to text.
- Feduccia, A.; cited in Morell, V., Archaeopteryx: Early Bird Catches a Can of Worms, Science 259(5096):764–65, 5 February, 1993. Return to text.
- Feduccia, A., The Origin and Evolution of Birds, Yale University Press, 2nd Ed., p. 39, 1999. Return to text.
- Brush, A.H., On the origin of feathers, Journal of Evolutionary Biology 9:131–142, 1996. Return to text.