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February 24, 2003

A Feathered T. Rex--Image Evolution


According to a story in Scientific American, the evolution of feathers seems to have occurred not in "birds" or even "proto-birds" but in dinosaurs. Specifically, feathers seem to have developed in therapod dinosaurs (the carnivorous types that ran about on two legs with prominent teeth.) Apparently feathers have a host of valuable properties not connected with flight, including being good heat insulators and being waterproof, to say nothing of allowing all sorts of interesting opportunities for sexual display and differentiation. So feathers came first, and flight was something that showed up later (possibly, much later) in the game. One consequence of this is to change the primary definition of birds from feathered, flying bipeds to the longest-running show among the therapod dinosaurs; another is eliminating the question: "Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?"

What astonished me, however, is that the current thinking (if I'm reading this story correctly) is that all therapod dinosaurs may have been feathered, including famous macho nasties like the velociraptor and T. Rex. The cover of Scientific American shows what I think is a velociraptor running around like a really scarey (and rather demented-looking) chicken. I can understand why they didn't even try to illustrate a feathered T. Rex--it would go against too deeply ingrained a mental image. I keep thinking about what the damn thing would look like, and having my visual imagination conk out. I mean, it seems like I just got used to the idea that T. Rex walked around with its body held horizontally, and not dragging its tail.

I wonder if this will hurt the popularity of dinosaurs--trying to match up the idea of T. Rex's tons of bone and tooth with cute ruff of fluffy feathers. Or will it end up pictured more like a giant vulture, dripping blood and dropping gore-stained feathers? (This image seems to be supported by recent theories that T. Rex was too big and slow to hunt and was therefore more of a scavenger or stealer of other dinosaurs' kills.) That has a messy reality that might put off children--and Hollywood, too!

Evolution of T. Rex's Image

From Tubby to Buff to...Avian?

The "mutation" of T. Rex's image from upright, big-bellied tripod to horizontal menace (sort of a crocodile with really long back legs) at the time of "Jurassic Park" was speedily accepted, largely because it made our boy seem far more fit and athletic--a true tyrant king in tune with 90s ideas of masculine sexuality. But I'm guessing that aesthetic preferences may hold the notion of a feathered T. Rex back for a while. I guess Darwinism isn't just for living creatures; now that I think about it, mental images seem to have a "survival of the fittest" aspect as well.



posted by Friedrich at February 24, 2003


Feathers? On a T-rex? I'm not sure I can adjust to that idea either. Being chased down by Super-Chicken? Bizarre, although it has its own nightmarishness.

I like your idea of mental imagery having its own Darwinian logic. Why aren't art historians taking this kind of approach?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 24, 2003 11:57 PM

The two evolutionary answers to the Permian Ice Age were fur and feathers. As they incarnated one of these answers, ALL dinosaurs were feathered! Birds ARE dinosaurs! T-rex and the therapods were indeed feathered, along with the rest of the dinosaurs. To believe anything else is to disregard the fossil evidence.

Posted by: wm d baker on November 13, 2003 3:40 PM

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