You've never seen a dinosaur, naturally, but you probably have a pretty good idea of what they look like. We've seen the same look over and over, across dozens of movies, books and museums: there's the balanced tail, the lizard-shaped head and, most of all, dark and tough scales.
The way we think of dinosaurs may have to change
But a new find in Siberia has paleontologists suspecting that look may be flat wrong. A team of researchers led by Pascal Godefroit has found a new dinosaur with ultra-thin feathers, joining other feathered species found in China and North America. More importantly, the new find is the first non-carnivorous dinosaur with feathers, which many in the field have taken as evidence that feathers were far more widespread than previously thought. If they're right, a big part of the way we think of dinosaurs may have to change.
Godefriot's new creature is called the Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus — a Jurassic creature about a meter and a half long, with large legs, short arms, and a very long tail. Because of the unusually well-preserved fossil, Godefroit could tell the Kulindadromeus had feathering on its torso and neck, but not its face, legs, or tail.
"Potentially, all dinosaurs could be covered with feathers."
Though feathered dinosaurs have been found before — Chinese groups found feathers on dinosaurs back in the 1990s — they have all been theropods, a class of upright dinosaurs like the Tyrannosaurus rex, which let researchers explain the feathers as part of the creatures’ eventual evolution into birds. But the plant-eating Kulindadromeus doesn't fit into that story. All the proto-bird species have been carnivores, so these feathers must have grown up independently of that evolutionary branch. That suggests that some dinosaurs, including many of the better-known species, may have developed feathers independently. "Probably more of them had feathers but those feathers were not fossilized," Godefriot told The Verge. "Potentially, all dinosaurs could be covered with feathers."
An alternate illustration of the Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus.
"There are many, many questions left."
The theory has already found support among others in the community. Darla Zelenitsky, who unearthed the first feathered dinosaur in North America in 2012, says the growing number of finds are pushing the paleontology community towards a tipping point. "The popular scaly model of plant-eating dinosaurs may, in years to come, be completely replaced by a feathered-scaly model," Zelenitsky says. Since the Kulindadromeus is flightless, some have speculated that the creature evolved feathers for warmth, which would bring in a lot of other dinosaurs potential candidates.
The big issue is the absence of evidence. Feathers aren't in our fossil record for most dinosaur species, but it's hard to say if that's because the feathers were never there or because they decomposed along the way. Paleontologists had been assuming the creatures were featherless for evolutionary reasons — but if theropods and the new Kulindadromeus developed feathers independently, hundreds of other species could potentially have taken the same route. "It's really just the starting point," Godefriot says, "there are many many questions left."