Are dinosaurs really birds?

15 May 2018

Question

I've heard dinosaurs are more closely related to birds than mammals, is this true?

Answer

Chris Smith asked Cambridge University palaeontologist Jason Head if birds really are living dinosaurs...

Jason - Yeah. And the answers absolutely. We know from skeletal anatomy and now we know from preserved soft tissue remains in the fossil record that birds are actually a specialised type of dinosaur; they’re a specialised type of theropod dinosaur. When we actually reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of dinosaurs to include birds, what you see is that all living birds are more closely related to tyrannosaurus rex, or to velociraptor than any of them are to triceratops or stegosaurus, or any of the other dinosaurs that you’ve got in your bag of plastic dinosaur toys as a kid.

So we see this from their skeletal anatomy and now we have from these very fine grain, well preserved environments from the late jurassic on up into the pretentious, evidence of feathers in what you would call non-bird dinosaurs. Now we know, or we have strong hypotheses that feathers initially evolve as both a kind of insulation for being warm blooded, and also as probably communication structures, just like in modern birds.

Chris - It’s amazing we can actually repaint the picture of what these dinosaurs looked like, isn’t it, by studying? There’s enough vestige in the fossils, in the fossil record, in order to create the colour scheme.

Jason - Absolutely! You can actually find in preserved soft tissues the correlates to different kinds of colour cells in modern feathers, and from that we can reconstruct in some of these animals what we think their plumage would have been coloured like.

Chris - Kate?

Kate - Yeah. There also are great fossil examples of structural colours, which is when an animal produces colour not using a pigment. If you grind up the colourful tissue it’s just white.

Chris - Like a butterfly wing is the same thing isn’t it?

Kate - Exactly like a butterfly wing. And so yeah, I just heard about some great research going on studying fossils and what colour they were based on the structures that they find that they have been preserved in, which is wicked.

Jason - There’s one place in Germany called Grube Messel, which is called a lagerstatte which is an area of incredible preservation. It’s an oil shale, and in that oil shale the insects actually preserve their colours - 15 million year old colouring preserved in an insect.

Comments

Add a comment