While helping to review a painting of Velociraptor posted to Gondolend, the artist brought up an outdated drawing of Sinornithosaurus she'd found among the top hits on Google, showing generally poor drawing skills and a likely inaccurate frond-tail of feather extending all the way to the hip (dromaeosaurs all seem to have had only a spray of vaned feathers at the tip of the tail, the rest being covered in down). This drawing is one of mine. As I've been updating my web site, I figured Sinornithosaurus should go to the top of the list for things to take a second stab at illustrating.
But how? In his book Dinosaurs of the Air, Greg Paul gave his sinornithosaurs something no fossils of them preserve--Microraptor-like wings on the back legs. It's a close relative of Microraptor, sure, but why do this with no evidence? In the travelling Feathered Dinosaurs exhibit I was lucky enough to see at the AMNH, the Liaoning diorama also contained a sinornithosaur with small, microraptorian hind wings. I checked the fossils again. Was I missing something? It seemed like a consensus was emerging with no published evidence. Sounds like some juicy behind the scenes goss was at work here.
It was. I present to you an unpublished specimen (NGMC 00-12-A, from Ji's thesis) of Sinornithosaurus (EDIT: Or is it a large, old Microraptor? See Mickey Mortimer's comments below) with what looks to be small wings on the hind legs.
Not only that, but as predicted by GSP and the AMNH model, it also appears to have full wings with primary (not just secondary as suggested by the preservation of the "Dave" specimen) wing feathers.
But... is it real? A few posters to DinoForum have admitted tentative wariness about even the hind-wing sporting Microraptor. After all, portions of the published Micro specimens are known to have been, ah, "enhanced" to make them more appealing to fossil collectors on the secondary fossil market (which is like half the Chinese economy and is only illegal in name). Sure, many specimens of Microraptor have been found with hind wings, but only two have been published on, and all came from private collectors. Specimens dug up by pros have lacked this feature, but are also more poorly preserved.
In the photo above, you can see that the feathered portion of the leg is on a separate piece of rock from the rest. Granted, specimens like this, at this size, are generally pretty fragmented, but it also gives fakers leeway to swap pieces in and out in order to make the piece more attractive. This practice isn't necessarily malicious, the enhancers just want to create a more artistic piece with no concern for science. Nor is it limited to China (remember Irritator? It got that name for a reason). Still, it's very prevalent there, to the point where many "museums" (mostly private collections that admit the public like the old Cabinets of Curiosity) contain mostly faked fossils. Professional museums in China, like the IVPP, are mainly clean from what I've heard. The pros are aware of this problem and I'd like to think most specimens that hit press are properly vetted, especially in the aftermath of Archaeoraptor. But when it comes to unpublished specimens, all bets are off, so be careful out there, paleoartists!
Long story short, I'll be re-illustrating Sinornithosaurus, but the hind wings will go in a separate layer, just in case...
[Top image: Very old, outdated Sinornithosaurus drawing by yours truly. All rights reserved.]
[second image from top: Sinornithosaurus by FunkMonk, lisenced.]