Can a Dinosaur Have Feathers?

Recently, we wrote about “Eva,” An alleged coelurasaur fossil trapped in amber. While we noted that the evidence seems more consistent with a bird than a dinosaur, it got me to thinking: Why can’t a dinosaur have feathers?

Two objections generally come to mind. The first is an appeal to consequences and the other is a matter of our preconceptions.

The appeal to consequences is, of course, the fact that feathered dinosaurs have been proffered as evidence of proposed dinosaurs-to-birds evolution. It’s the fear that we will find ourselves facing Archaeopteryx 2.0. Before Archaeopteryx was admitted as a true bird, it was proffered as the quintessential missing link between dinosaurs and birds. In modern times, dinosaurs with protofeather fuzz are promoted in much the same way. It is understandable then that many creationists do not want to admit to a dinosaur with fully developed feathers; however, if we base our position on an appeal to consequences  (a logical fallacy), we are in fact less interested in the truth than we are protecting our pet theories within creationism.

The second objection comes involves how we describe dinosaurs. Technically speaking, dinosaurs are archosaurs with their hind limbs held erect beneath the body, like mammals, rather than sprawling as with modern reptiles. It is this difference in posture that marks the truest difference between “thunder lizards” and modern lizards (and other reptiles). The Archosauria clade is a subset of the Reptilia clade, including diapsid (tetrapods that have two holes in each side of their skull) amniotes  (creatures who lay eggs on land or retain fertilized eggs inside the mother rather than laying eggs in the water) of the Pseudosuchia  (crocodiles and their relatives) and Ornithosuchia  (birds, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, etc.) clades. So dinosaurs, technically speaking, tetrapods with two holes in each side of their skull that lays eggs on land and have their hind limbs erect beneath them.

The trouble is when they are simplistically defined as reptiles with their hind limbs erect beneath them. I don’t think this is correct and it’s an unfortunate anachronistic error that came about from the idea that dinosaurs are literally “thunder lizards.”

Creationists recognize that birds and reptiles are distinct classes of created creatures despite the fact that they share certain characteristics  (viz., they are diapsid amniotes). Perhaps it’s truly time to divorce our concept of what a dinosaur is from the anachronistic idea that they were reptiles.
In the context of our question, we perhaps need to realize that birds have feathers and reptiles have scales, but perhaps dinosaurs had both, not because they are transitional but because they happen to have both according to the Creator’s design.  We did this when we recognize that horses had both claws and hooves, and that birds sometimes had teeth, just as reptiles sometimes have teeth or not. Admitting those variations within created parabaramin doesn’t undermine the Biblical view of Creation in any way. We simply need to start thinking of dinosaurs as distinct from reptiles.

We have further reasons to be open to the idea of dinosaurs with feathers. We creationists believe that dragon legends are based on eyewitness accounts of dinosaurs. So what are we to do with Quetzecoatl, aka the Feathered Serpent? If it doesn’t correspond to a monstrously exaggerated Archaeopteryx  (a favored theory of mine) or a terratorn or a stylized rendition of wings or scales (depending upon what’s being illustrated), it may very well represent a variant of a “dragon,” which we creationists recognize as another term for relict dinosaurs. Certainly, dragons are rendered with feathers and even avian wings in some legends and historical illustrations.

Of course, it may be that all dinosaurs end up being scaly and the only dragon legends associated with feathers involve a stylized snake or Archaeopteryx.  If this ends up being the case, I think that we still need to make a distinction in our minds and in our arguments between reptiles and dinosaurs.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you, Tony. This is a most gratifying post. You would not believe the stubbornness I have encountered among people like Jonathan Sarfati and others, when trying to show them Microraptor is a dinosaur. Basically it’s a small Velociraptor with full feathers. But they keep insisting that it’s just a weird bird, never mind the diagnostic features of its bones.

  2. Peter says:

    ‘diaspsid’ twice typo for ‘diapsid’ – think of a church apsid, same origin of word.
    “Before Archaeopteryx was admitted as a true bird, it was proffered as the quintessential missing link between dinosaurs and birds.”
    Archaeopteryx is a quintessential link, look at the anatomy. ‘true bird’ is matter of taxonomic definition, not of anatomy.

    1. Tony Breeden says:

      It’s actually an apse not an apsid, although the adjective form is apsidal. Nevertheless thanks for spotting the mistake. I’ve made the necessary corrections.

      Your second point seems to contradict itself, but I could also simply be misunderstanding what you meant to say. Perhaps you could elucidate?

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