What If Dinosaurs Really Had Feathers?

News to Know

by Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell on September 24, 2015


Is Zhenyuanlong a big bird or a big blow to biblical belief?

We’ve received questions about one of the latest so-called “feathered dinosaur” discoveries, Zhenyuanlong suni. One letter summed up the issue well:

For quite some time I had believed that bird-like feathers couldn't be found on a saurischian [lizard-hipped] dinosaur, and yet the recent 5-foot-long Zhenyuanlong has just that—bird-like feathers. If dinosaurs really did evolve into birds, who could understand Genesis?

– JK

The writer then asks if the fossil could simply be a fake.

Authenticity of the Evidence

The problem of faked feathered fossils is real and ought to be considered when evaluating new discoveries. Who can forget the infamous Archaeoraptor lianoningensis, aka the “Piltdown chicken”? (See “Archaeoraptor Hoax Update—National Geographic Recants!”) That fake fossil from China’s Liaoning Province was hailed in November 1999’s National Geographic as “a true missing link in the complex chain that connects dinosaurs to birds.”1

The problem of feathered hoaxes has not by any means gone away. Evolutionary science writer John Pickrell has even included a chapter about this growing problem in his 2014 book Flying Dinosaurs: How Fearsome Reptiles Became Birds, and it was republished as “The Great Dinosaur Fossil Hoax” by Cosmos magazine.2 However, though like many fossils both genuine and falsified, Zhenyuanlong was obtained from an anonymous Chinese farmer in Liaoning Province; we have no reason to suggest there’s anything fishy about Zhenyuanlong.

Historical Science

Science is a marvelous tool. It helps us understand the world and the living things in it. With science we invent wondrous things to improve our lives and devices that let us peer at the secrets of tiny cells and distant stars. But science cannot observe what happened “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1).

Science cannot give us a window seat on the fifth day of Creation Week when God said, “‘Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the face of the firmament of the heavens.’ So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded, according to their kind, and every winged bird according to its kind” (Genesis 1:20–21). Neither can science allow us to observe the sixth day when God made land animals (Genesis 1:24–25) and man (Genesis 1:26–28). But we have God’s Word on the fact that “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air” (Genesis 2:19).

Our reader is therefore absolutely correct in asking, “If dinosaurs really did evolve into birds, who could understand Genesis?” Or even Exodus, for that matter! God reiterated the length of the Creation Week when He wrote the law on tablets of stone and gave it to Moses. God allowed no time for evolution when He declared, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11).

What’s in a Name?

The only living animals with feathers are birds. All birds—whether they fly or not—have feathers. Feathers have long been a defining characteristic of birds, distinguishing them in modern language from other flying creatures from dragonflies to bats.

when viewed through evolutionary glasses they seem to form a continuum illustrating the evolutionary process.

To call birds “living dinosaurs” or reptiles is to redefine them according to what they presumably evolved from rather than what they are. Implicit in this maneuver is the worldview-based, Genesis-rejecting evolutionary belief that fossils are like the still pictures comprising an old-style animated feature. In other words, though each is an isolated image, when viewed through evolutionary glasses they seem to form a continuum illustrating the evolutionary process. Yet though some fossils that evolutionary scientists insist on classifying as dinosaurs have real feathers, they do not demonstrate evolutionary change from dinosaurs into birds. Like still frames in an animation, they depend upon evolutionary imagination to connect the dots.

Furthermore, even if dinosaurs had a feathery skin covering—and no such evidence has been found—would that prove they evolved into birds, or only show that something besides birds once had feathers? The latter, of course. Though differing from the modern-appearing birds that share their place in the fossil record, some fossilized animals have genuine feathers and other avian anatomical features. Why can’t everyone just call them all extinct birds? Because to do so would rob the evolutionary community of the transitional forms they claim to have.

Worldview-Based Vision

When approaching new discoveries held up as proof that biblical history is false—and some are using Zhenyuanlong’s plumage to do just that3—remember that scientists’ worldviews affect how they interpret what they see. Evolutionary scientists need feathered dinosaurs to justify belief that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Bible-believers know that there are no such in-betweens.

Feathers are one of many problems in the dinosaur-to-bird just-so story. (The uniqueness of the avian respiratory system is another.) The determination of evolutionists in recent years4 to call any filamentous material on dinosaur skin proto-feathers represents an attempt to get around the fact that feather complexity is a problem for Darwinian evolution. (See “The Evolution of Feathers: A Major Problem for Darwinism” to learn more.)

Unable to find dinosaurs with indisputably feathery feathers, cladistic analysis has equipped evolutionists to recruit feather-sporting extinct birds into the ranks of dinosaurs. Cladistics is a method of classifying animals by tallying the traits they share. Evolutionists use cladistics to trace evolutionary relationships. Bible-believers could just as well use these common traits to point out the common designs created by our Common Designer, God.

While cladistic analysis gives the appearance of objectivity, it is highly subjective. The list of traits compared is readily skewed toward those deemed to be of evolutionary significance.5 Furthermore, inclusion of extinct birds classified as dinosaurs in the dataset for comparison results in the recruitment of yet more extinct birds to the dino-bird ranks.

We must remember that the evolutionary worldview—a view rejecting God’s account of the past in favor of man’s fallible beliefs about the past—is the basis for their claims. But we have a reliable eyewitness to the origin of birds, ourselves, and everything else. Therefore, we know birds didn’t evolve from dinosaurs. They didn’t evolve from anything.

What Is Zhenyuanlong?

Zhenyuanlong is a 5-foot long fossil with lots of feathers, real ones. It has so many feathers arranged much like that of modern birds that it is featured in the October 2015 issue of Bird Watching. Nevertheless evolutionists consider Zhenyuanlong a dinosaur because they see it through “cladistical glasses.”

Donated to a museum in Liaoning Province “by a local farmer, who is not willing to reveal his identity,”6 Zhenyuanlong has been classified as a dromaeosaurid on the basis of cladistic analysis of 474 characteristics.7 “This new dinosaur is one of the closest cousins of Velociraptor, but it looks just like a bird,” says Steven Brusatte, coauthor of Zhenyuanlong’s analysis in Scientific Reports. “It’s a dinosaur with huge wings made up of quill pen feathers, just like an eagle or a vulture.”8

Dromaeosaurids, now considered feathered theropods, include featherless “dino-fuzzy” dinosaurs like Velociraptor and Sinosauropteryx, as well as feathered birds like Microraptor gui and the microraptorine Changyuraptor yangi. Some ardent evolutionists would agree that the very feathery four-winged microraptors are just birds.9 Others believe they are dinosaurs and think their unique aerodynamic design with impressive leg and tail plumage could shed light on how flight evolved. In reality, the microraptorines are extinct birds that shed light on the diversity in God’s designs for the flying creatures He created on the fifth day of Creation Week.

Zhenyuanlong was not a microraptor, however. While similar to them in many ways, it had no feathers on its hind limbs and no hint of an extra set of wings on them. But it clearly had mature feathers of various sorts. Like both Microraptor and modern birds, Zhenyuanlong’s primary and secondary feathers are more than twice the length of its humerus (upper “arm” bone). Zhenyuanlong’s wings were streamlined by covert (covering) feathers. It also had long pennaceous tail feathers, but preservation is insufficient to know whether they fanned out at the end like those on Microraptor. The complexity of feather types on such a large fossilized animal is its claim to fame.

The complexity of feather types on such a large fossilized animal is its claim to fame.

Zhenyuanlong was probably grounded by its short wings. Compared to its hind limbs, this big feathery fossil’s forelimbs were quite short. While flightlessness is not an issue for creation scientists, evolutionists must explain how such plumage evolved and was retained without contributing to the animal’s survival. Coauthors Junchang Lü and Stephen L. Brusatte therefore speculate, “It may be that such large wings comprised of multiple layers of feathers were useful for display purposes, and possibly even evolved for this reason and not for flight.”10

Feathers Plus . . .

While all birds have feathers, there is great variety among birds. The dragonfly-like wings of the microraptors are just one example. The extinct bird Archaeopteryx had teeth, fingers on its wings, feathers on its wings and legs, and a long stiff tail. No living birds have teeth, some other extinct birds such as Hesperornis did. So did Zhenyuanlong and the microraptors. Diversity extends to living birds too. The ostrich has fingers on is wings, and the young hoatzin of South America has fingers with which it climbs trees. So given such diversity, is there anything other than feathers to help the discerning reader identify Zhenyuanlong?

One feature to look for in fossils like these is the lower limbs. Birds have a unique respiratory system that allows air to flow through without changing the lung volume. To keep their abdominal air sacs from collapsing, bird femurs—the thigh bones—are located inside the body. (There is a diagram illustrating this unique arrangement in “Lizard Breath Fails to Support Kinship with Birds.”) While this connection is not preserved in fossils, some consequences of the arrangement often are. The upper ends of the femurs attach to the fused lower backbones near the back of the body, in a position that leaves a bird free to balance over its knees, lower legs, and feet.

Zhenyuanlong suni

This is Zhenyuanlong suni, a five-foot-long feathered fossil from Liaoning Province’s Cretaceous rock. Image reproduced from Lü and Brusatte, “A Large, Short-Armed . . . ” doi: 10.1038/srep11775.

Dr. David Menton of Answers in Genesis, whose articles and resources have helped many sort out these distinctions, studied the published photographs and explains,

It’s a bird, though possibly flightless. This fossil is similar in some respects to Archaeopteryx, both having a long-feathered, stiff-looking tail.

Clearly Zhenyuanlong had primary and secondary feathers on its wings plus coverts on the forearm. No feathers were found on the legs. Of course I would not expect feathers on the femur since all birds today have their femurs incorporated in the body wall. The visible bird “leg” (drum stick) is really therefore the hind limb from the knee on down.

Birds have a unique respiratory system that does not involve changes in lung volume during respiration. Many birds therefore have “uncinate processes” that make their ribcages inflexible. These were not observed on Zhenyuanlong, but as the authors themselves point out they, like the sternum, could have been cartilaginous and missing.11

However, birds have a bulky fusion of lower vertebral bones called a synsacrum. Figure 1 (reproduced above) appears to show this with the head of the femur articulating into it. The articulation of the femoral heads in this fossil is so dorsal and posterior—practically at the back wall of its body—that, if Zhenyuanlong had walked crouching on top of its legs like a biped dinosaur, it would have been very unbalanced and fallen on its face. Imagine those legs in Figure 1 straightened out and you will see what I mean. But if the femur were incorporated into the abdominal wall as we see in all birds, and it consequently walked from knee down (on its “drumsticks”), Zhenyuanlong would appear to be balanced.

Zhenyuanlong was a big bird, now extinct but preserved in the geologic record of the global Flood, a catastrophe that buried it and countless other animals under tons of sediment. Zhenyuanlong is not a blow to biblical belief but a testimony to the avian diversity of the pre-Flood world.

Further Reading

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  1. C. P. Sloan, “Feathers for T. rex? New Birdlike Fossils Are Missing Links in Dinosaur Evolution,” National Geographic, November 1999, 98–107.
  2. John Pickrell, “The Great Dinosaur Fossil Hoax,” Cosmos, July 27, 2015, https://cosmosmagazine.com/history/palaeontology/the-great-dinosaur-fossil-hoax/.
  3. “Winged Transitional Dinosaur Puts Creationists in a Flap,” http://www.handbagspurses.info/article/4697115041/winged-transitional-dinosaur-puts-creationists-in-a-flap/.
  4. The notion that dinosaurs had feathers has been around a long time. Evolutionist Thomas Huxley came up with it in the 19th century. As 20th century scientists realized the complexity and unique specialization of feather structure, however, the idea went into hibernation. Its popularity resurfaced in the 1980s and has continued even though some prominent evolutionists like Alan Feduccia do not accept it.
  5. Evolutionists call common traits they believe to be passed down from ancestors “shared derived characters.” Those they believe to have evolved in different lineages due to similar needs imposed by similar environments—like the similar adaptations dragonflies, bats, and birds would need in order to fly—they attribute to convergent evolution. The evolutionists constructing the “cladograms” showing the evolutionary relationships deduced from their analysis get to decide which traits to use.
  6. Junchang Lü and Stephen L. Brusatte, “A Large, Short-Armed, Winged Dromaeosaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from the Early Cretaceous of China and Its Implications for Feather Evolution,” Scientific Reports 5 (July 16, 2015): 11775, doi: 10.1038/srep11775.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Zhenyuanlong suni: New Feather-Winged Dinosaur Species Discovered,” Sci-News, July 16, 2015, http://www.sci-news.com/paleontology/science-zhenyuanlong-suni-new-feather-winged-dinosaur-03027.html.
  9. Discussed in “Feathered Fossil: Still a Bird.”
  10. “Newly Discovered Dinosaur Species Is Largest with Bird-Like Feathers,” Bird Watching, August 4, 2015, http://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/blog/2015/08/04/newly-discovered-dinosaur-species-is-largest-with-bird-like-feathers/.
  11. The authors note that among species from the Liaoning formation known from multiple specimens, some have ossified uncinate processes and some do not.


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