Monday, September 24, 2007

Velociraptor: A Feathered Friend?

If you've seen the movie Jurassic Park, then you probably have a pretty clear picture of what Velociraptor looked like: a smoothed-skinned, long-armed, vicious meat-eater. Unfortunately, that image turns out to be another reminder that you shouldn't believe everything you see on screen. According to evidence published in this week's journal "Science", Velociraptor had feathers!

How could they tell? Scientists from the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago looked closely at the arm bone of one of the creatures and found a series of bumps where feathers attached, just like we see today in modern birds like the turkey vulture.

"The question is why an animal that's clearly not flying would have this structure," says Lindsay Zanno, a graduate student who studies related dinosaurs here at the Utah Museum of Natural History. One theory is that Velociraptor descended from ancestors that once flew. Other thoughts include that the feathers were used for display like a peacock's tail, to help keep warm-blooded dinosaurs warm, or to control the temperature of nests. Whatever the reason this species had feathers, "It's good to finally have proof" says Zanno.

Could any of Utah's dinosaurs have had feathers too? Possibly, but no one knows for sure. While Utah was home to many cousins of Velociraptor including the world famous dinosaurs Utahraptor, Falcarius, and Hagryphus, the ancient environment at their burial ground wasn't right to preserve feathers.. However, similar marks on a bone could in theory show up. "It makes you want to go back and look closer, to see if you were missing something," says Zanno. "Each step forward makes you look back; there's a constant reevaluation."

Why do you think a creature who couldn't fly might have had feathers? Click "Comments" below and let us know!