Wednesday, July 16, 2014

People Think Feathered Dinosaurs Don't Look Scary. They're Right.

This short article on io9 pretty well encapsulates an area of frustration for artists and scientists in the age of feathered theropods.
Ooh, I'm shakin' in my boots.
Photo by Simon Rumblelicensed.
The implication is, right from the title, that it's common knowledge most depictions of feathered T. rex are not cool. Feathered theropods are widely derided by the public because feathers make these scary reptilian monsters less scary. In a recent Facebook discussion, I took one of those "short pelt raptor" images to task for inaccuracy (you know, the kind that pays lip service to the idea of feathered theropods, but with the minimum possible change to the classic silhouette, with a cat-like short pelt rather than a bird-like poof of feathers engulfing the body). In my reply I kind of hypothesized that there's an evolutionary psychology* reason for our aversion to feathered theropods and our cat-like concessions to the idea.

As Andrea Cau has pointed out, paleoartists (myself included), consciously or not, often employ all kinds of subtle tricks to make feathered theropods look "cool". Leaving the face scaly and reptilian is a popular trick; his body might say "Big Bird", but his face tells you he means business. Face fully feathered? Introduce an eagle-like lowered "brow" or some kind of eyebrow analogue so his facial expression can look "mean". Make sure his mouth is open or he's prominently displaying his other weapons in a ninja-like fighting stance. And be sure if you make him colorful, use high contrast, red and black if possible, and light it so his face is in shadow--that way you know he's thinking evil thoughts. This might also allow you to add eye shine making the eyes look like demonic embers! (check back to the io9 article and see how many of these points that T. rex hits).

In the comments to the io9 article, there were the predictable bouts of resistance to the idea that T. rex could have had feathers at all. "It was too large! Large mammals don't have so much fur in hot climates!" The problem with comparisons to large mammals is that feathers are very different in structure from fur, and have very different insulating properties. Fur is mainly used to keep an animal warm, but thanks to the fact that feathers grown in adjustable, planar layers, and are better at trapping and regulating air flow, many large birds use their feathers to very effectively keep themselves cool by circulation while blocking the skin from absorbing direct sun. It may actually have been disadvantageous for a large animal to lose its feathers, especially if it lived in a hot sunny climate. The fully-feathered Yutyrannus was not significantly smaller than any but the largest T. rex. Most T. rex specimens fell short of the 6.8 tons estimated for the most gargantuan known adults like Sue, that is certainly not the species average size!

But, there was one comment that played right into my ego-psych hypothesis. The commenter basically stated that we know juvenile T. rex had feathers, but there's no reason to think adults kept them. Except even that premise is wrong. 
There is in fact zero direct evidence to support the hypothesis that T. rex juveniles had feathers, let alone that they had them and then lost them. It's simply easier for people to assume that a baby animal, which is supposed to be cute, had feathers, which we psychologically associate with cute animals. 

Are one of these things is not as scary as the other?
Illustrations by M. Martyniuk, all rights reserved.

It is actually less of a stretch (i.e. more parsimonious) to hypothesize that based on its phylogenetic bracket, T. rex had feathers and retained them throughout its life, than the hypothesis that T. rex was born with feathers, lost them because they became disadvantageous at some unspecified weight, then through some unknown developmental pathway replaced its feathers with the kind of thick, scaly skin it is usually depicted with and would need to protect itself from the sun/injury if it lacked feathers. But this convoluted thinking is easier for people to accept because T. rex is the king of all monsters, and monsters are by definition not cute.**

The sad fact is, T. rex may not have looked all that cool. I think John Conway and others have brought this up before. It, and many if not most other dinosaurs, may very well have looked really, really stupid to us. Nature doesn't care if an animal looks intimidating to a species that evolved 66 million years later in a completely different environmental context alongside a vastly different set of predators. Our brains are programmed to find mammalian and reptilian predators scary at least in part* because we evolved alongside these and our survival depended on it. We had no such pressure for most kinds of birds***, and maybe coincidentally, we find very few kinds of birds the least bit intimidating. We have to be told/shown that a cassowary is even capable of being dangerous, and people still constantly trot this out as a surprising fact, despite the fact that it has very few physical differences from a Velociraptor, other than being much larger

So, if your average Joe met a non-avialan theropod in real life, the reaction might be less like any of the raptor scenes in the original Jurassic Park and more like Newman vs. the cute, colorful, silly, hopping (read: bird-like) dilophosaur - bemusement leading to injury.

* I know evo psych is mostly made up of untestable just-so-storys. But it's still fun to think about.

** That's sarcasm. Tyrannosaurs were not monsters, they were plain old regular animals. A lesson people forget from the original Jurassic Park (probably because they're not actually depicted hat way in the movie, despite the fact that the characters talk about it).

***Raptors seem to be the exception. Probably because they preyed on early humans, and maybe also because of their mean-looking "eyebrows"?