Saturday, August 11, 2012

Did Sinosauropteryx Have "Protofeathers"?

Life restoration of the S. prima type specimen by M. Martyniuk
Over at Jaime Headden's blog The Bite Stuff, Jaime recently wrote a great article about the newly discovered basal coelurosaurian or orionidian Sciurumimus. The article touched on the fact that its feathers were reported as stage 1 (simple, unbranched filaments, often referred to as "protofeathers") in the parlance of feather development researcher Richard Prum. In the comments, Heinrich Mallison pointed out that they *look* like stage 1, but as Foth showed, crushed feathers (even those of modern birds) often look much more primitive than they are due to taphonomic effects. (I've mentioned before in a few places that it's really unfortunate Foth's important paper seems to have been mostly ignored by others writing about fossil feather types). Jaime defended this by saying that Sinosauropteryx, which is more derived, also is 'generally agreed' to have had stage 1 feathers. It's true that this is the general agreement in the literature, and it's also true that the general agreement has been challenged (effectively, in my opinion). I posted a reply to the article, but the fact that this keeps coming up lately has made me think that maybe I should be trying to publicize this more widely, so my comment is reproduced below along with some more commentary on the issue.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Strange Bird Dalianraptor cuhe

Type specimen of D. cuhe, originally posted by Andrea Cau
I'm interrupting my regularly scheduled upcoming blog posts to bring some attention to a little-known Jehol bird: the strange 'jeholornithid'-grade species Dalianraptor cuhe.

D. cuhe has spent the last several years as a species in obscurity, even among most paleontology enthusiasts. I recall my first glimpse of the type specimen, wondering over the seemingly-complete remains of an "undescribed possible dromaeosauird" in a low-res photo posted online in the early '00s. I can remember saving the image to my reference folder, hoping that one day I'd be able to update the file name. It's a fascinating animal, but... is it real?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Tail of Shanweiniao

Fossil tail feathers of S. cooperorum, from O'Connor et al., 2009.
As a follow-up to last month's post on the smallest Mesozoic theropods, here are a few additional observations on the small longipterygid Shanweiniao. Like other longirostravisines*, Shanweiniao cooperorum had reduced "hands" entirely lacking claws. This reduction of wing claws seems to have occurred independently of modern birds within this uniquely specialized group of enantiornitheans. (Euornitheans seem to have lost the bulk of their wing claws around the level of Carinatae, though many modern birds still retain at least keratinous claws on their wings, and longirostravisines may have as well).

S. cooperorum itself is most well-known for its elaborate tail made up of six ribbon-like feathers. Those feathers overlapped at the base, and may have acted as an air brake for precise landings with the feet on small branches. It's possible that most other enantiornitheans, which lacked long feathery tails and also retained wing claws, landed by simply smacking clumsily into tree trunks or brush and grabbing on with all four limbs.