The thing with feathers

The poster for Dinosaur Island (2014), the first motion picture to feature feathered dinosaurs.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” the American poet Emily Dickenson wrote. She was comparing the emotion to a songbird, which is about as harmless an animal as one can imagine. I wonder what form Dickenson’s poem would have taken had feathered T. rexes existed in her world.

Whether T. rexes had feathers is a matter of debate, although there is no doubt earlier relatives of the famous dinosaur were covered with plume. Still, the suggestion that at least some dinosaurs were fluffy gets certain people very angry, as parodied by this (not particularly funny) music video. Why the hand-wringing? I think most people associate feathers with meekness. Dinosaurs are supposed big, scaly and scary—all the things your average canary is not. This isn’t a fair comparison because plenty of scary birds exist in the modern-day world. You wouldn’t want to end up on the bad side of a harpy eagle or southern cassowary. Even seemingly harmless birds can have a mean streak: Legendary “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin would wrestle crocodiles but was terrified of parrots because one nearly bit his nose off.

This bias against feathers is probably best demonstrated by the refusal of Jurassic World’s filmmakers to add fluff to the film’s velociraptors even though their real-life counterparts were covered in the stuff. But that’s Hollywood. Fortunately, the literary world has been a bit better about incorporating feathered dinosaurs into fiction.

Science fiction often trails actual science, so the first question to ask is when did scientists first propose that dinosaurs had feathers? The earliest fossil evidence for feathered dinosaurs was found in 1860 with the discovery of Archaeopteryx in a German quarry. The original and subsequent Archaeopteryx fossils showed the clear outline of feathers alongside a dinosaur-like skeleton. The discoveries provided a big boost for popularizing the theory of evolution but did little to advance the idea that birds had descended from dinosaurs. Instead, biologists such as Thomas Huxley (aka “Darwin’s Bulldog”) believed the fossils showed that birds and dinosaurs had a common ancestor but otherwise were not related. This view would be the dominant one for the next century, with most paleontologists envisioning dinosaurs as big and scaly.

The turning point came in the late 1960s with the discovery of Deinonychus fossils in the western U.S. These are the so-called “raptor” dinosaurs that would later be popularized in Jurassic Park. (In fact, the “velociraptors” in Jurassic Park are actually Deinonychus, as author Michael Crichton mistakenly believed the two species were the same dinosaur.) Paleontologist John Ostrom studied the fossils and concluded that Deinonychus was built to be a dynamic, active hunter—a view that ran counter to the then-popular opinion of dinosaurs as sluggish reptiles. Ostrom’s research ushered in a new era of how scientists thought about dinosaurs, later dubbed the “dinosaur renaissance.”

Ostrom noted Deinonychus had bird-like features but most early reconstructions of the species depicted an animal covered in scales. Then came Robert Bakker, a paleontologist best known for championing the idea of hot-blooded dinosaurs. In his influential 1986 book The Dinosaur Heresies, Bakker argued that birds descended from dinosaurs, and to punctuate the point he included his own illustration of a feathered Deinonychus attacking a scaly ostrich dinosaur.

The Dinosaurs Heresies was nonfiction but the book led to my first encounter of a feathered dinosaur in fiction. One of my favorite books as a kid was a “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style work of edutainment titled Time Machine 22: Last of the Dinosaurs, published in 1988. In it, readers were time travelers sent back to study dinosaurs, and in one encounter they come across a Deinonychus attacking the plant-eating dinosaur Hypsilophodon:

As the one-sided fight continues, you’re struck by the deinonychus’s appearance. It looks as if its body is covered with feathers, but you can’t tell for sure, because it’s moving too fast. And its claws and hopping movement seem more like a bird’s than a dinosaur’s. You wonder if it’s possible that some dinosaurs evolved into birds.

The text may be ambiguous about Deinonychus’s appearance but the accompanying illustration by famed paleoartist Douglas Henderson clearly shows the dinosaur with feathers. The scene was clearly inspired by The Dinosaur Heresies.

While Bakker’s initial conjecture about feathered “raptor” dinosaurs would later prove correct, for a long time there was no direct evidence of feathers, so most authors described the animals with scaly hides. The 1978 short story “The Runners” by Bob Buckley may be one of the first works of fiction featuring raptor dinosaurs, but the author makes no mention of feathers. Crichton’s Jurassic Park famously cast raptors as the main villains but they were scaly. And Bakker himself cast a scaly Utahraptor as the main protagonist of his 1995 novel Raptor Red.

Pinning down the first example of a feathered dinosaur in fiction is difficult because I can’t claim to have read every work of paleofiction or even remember the details of many titles I’ve read. To my knowledge, the earliest example comes from a comic book, and one could argue whether it really counts. The 1970s comic series Flesh depicted a species of tyrannosaurs that lived so far north they had evolved a layer of fur for warmth. Appropriately enough, the dinosaurs are called “furry tyrannosaurs” in the comic. The depiction of these animals in the comic resembles some modern illustrations of feathered tyrannosaurs, but since the comic refers to them as “furry” rather than “feathered,” I’m on shaky ground claiming them as the first example of the latter.

As for the first novel to feature fuzzy dinosaurs, Lords of Creation by Tim Sullivan is the earliest work I can recall that mentions feathers. This 1992 story depicts a species of dinosaur that has been genetically engineered by aliens to have intelligence approaching that of humans. The dinosaurs also have feathers covering their backs. Two years later author Lee Grimes published Dinosaur Nexus, in which a group of human time travelers encounter a species of intelligent dinosaur from an alternate timeline:

Their heads and faces, like their forearms, were bare and brown and looked fuzzy. One creature was a head shorter than the other and had a high crest like a ridge of feathers, mostly red but yellow at the tips.

The above novels flirted with feathered dinosaurs, but for my money, the first work of fiction to wholeheartedly embrace the concept was Greg Bear’s Dinosaur Summer, released in 1998. The book is a pseudo-sequel to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World but set in an alternate timeline where a plateau full of dinosaurs really did exist in South America. Many of the beasts are fictitious, being the descendants of actual dinosaurs, and several of them sport feathers. The most prominent feathered dinosaur in the book is Stratoraptor velox—the T. rex-sized descendent of Archaeopteryx:

Emerging from the forest on two muscular pillars of legs, pushing aside trees with a stealth and grace astonishing for its bulk, its broad, long tail sweeping behind, twenty-five feet high from top of its saber-clawed toes to glittering white feathery crest, white- and yellow-plumed head sporting a long snout with both a scimitar beak and long rows of knife-like teeth, two long black-feathered arms bobbing gently before it, Stratoraptor velox, the Totenadler, the death eagle, stepped out onto the denuded territory of the golden ants and surveyed the situation with dark-rimmed green eyes.

Paleontologists began finding dinosaur fossils with feather impressions in the 1990s, which may explain why feathered dinosaurs play such a major role in Dinosaur Summer—the author was simply drawing on the discoveries taking place around the time he was writing the book. Whatever the case, later authors would incorporate those discoveries into their own works, from the cameo of a fuzzy T. rex in Douglas Preston’s Tyrannosaur Canyon to the feathered terrors found in Victor Milan’s Dinosaur Lords series. In addition, many comic book artists have taken to drawing their dinosaurs with feathers. There is not much to recommend about Wildstorm’s short-lived series Extinction Event, but its dinos are covered with plume.

So far motion pictures are the only medium to shy away from feathered dinosaurs. Jurassic World, as mentioned earlier, stuck with scaly dinosaurs. So did the 2005 remake of King Kong. Still, there is hope for people who wish their dinosaurs to reflect current scientific thinking. The 2014 children’s film Dinosaur Island not only featured feathered “raptors,” but a fluffy, colorful T. rex. More recently, the children’s television series Dino Dana depicts several brightly colored feathered dinosaurs. A younger generation is growing up with dinosaurs that look less like iguanas and more like eagles, and at some point even the producers of movies like Jurassic World won’t be able to ignore the trend.

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