Paleontological Accuracy vs. Evolutionary Accuracy

A Tyrannosaurus from the new Jurassic World: Dominion teaser. Note the fuzz on the Tyrannosaurus. It is especially notable on the back of the head. That fuzz is not due to blurriness (yes, the image is quite a bit blurry), but because it appears that this Tyrannosaurus has been given actual dino-fuzz.

A new teaser for Jurassic World: Dominion was recently released, providing eager Jurassic Wold fans their first glimpse of some of the dinosaurs in the upcoming movie. A topic that has come up quite quickly is how the dinosaurs are more paleontologically accurate than they have been in the past. The most notable difference is that the Tyrannosaurus in the teaser is shown with fuzz on it. This fuzz represents proto-feathers, and as it is now common to portray almost all theropod dinosaurs with fuzz or feathers, this new Tyrannosaurus is considered to be a step in the right direction.

The only problem is that a fuzzy Tyrannosaurus is not paleontologically accurate. At least, a scaly Tyrannosaurus matches the evidence from paleontology better than a fuzzy Tyrannosaurus.

There are a handful of Tyrannosaurus specimens that have skin impressions. Based on these, it is known that portions of the tail and the neck had scales. If we include other genera within Tyrannosauridae (such as Albertosaurus and Gorgosaurus), then the cumulative evidence shows that these animals had scales over most of the tail, abdomen, and thoracic regions.[1] While the entire surface of the body is not known, the extent of scales found on tyrannosaurs makes it easy to conclude that they were completely scaled.

If the fossil evidence suggests that Tyrannosaurus was scaled, whey would people consider it to be paleontologically accurate to show fuzz on a Tyrannosaurus? Because if the theory of evolution is correct, then some kind of proto-feather should be expected on Tyrannosaurus. Let me explain.

Tyrannosaurs are classified as coelurosaurs. This is a large group of generally “small” theropods, as opposed to the other group of “large” carnosaurs. Despite the fact that coelurosaurs were originally thought to be the small meat-eating dinosaurs, tyrannosaurs are actually classified as coelurosaurs today. Compared to other dinosaurs, coelurosaurs are close to birds, according to secular paleontology, so it would be expected that some, if not all of them, would have developed feathers. Indeed, there are at least two tyrannosaurs that have been found with what appear to be fuzzy integumentary structures (these are Dilong[2] and Yutyrannus[3]). Being on a branch that leads to birds, and having fuzzy members within it own group makes it likely, according to the theory of evolution, that Tyrannosaurus was also fuzzy. However, that is not what the fossil evidence (the actual paleontological evidence) indicates.

I am pointing out this inconsistent use of the word “paleontological” as a caution for us. When someone claims that “paleontology supports such and such and idea,” be careful of such a claim. It may be that the “evolutionary evidence” points to such and such a conclusion while the actual fossil evidence is silent or gives the opposite.

By the way, the same caution can be made about claims made by creationists, too. We make mistakes also and we sometimes get our expectations wrong. Take feathered dinosaurs, for example. There was a time when creationists thought it ridiculous that dinosaurs would have feathers, yet some have been found.

Now, before I make my fellow creationists too made, let me clarify what I am claiming. I am claiming that there are creatures that were readily identifiable as dinosaurs that were later found to have feathers. The best example of this is Microraptor. Microraptor was named and described in 2000. At that time, no one disputed that it was a dinosaur.[4] It helped that it was not found with any clear feather impressions. Later, in 2003, a new species, Microraptor gui, was discovered and named. This one came with clear impressions of feathers, something that could not easily be dismissed as a misidentification or a forgery. Now, some of the same people who claimed Microraptor was a dinosaur began identifying it as a bird.[5] The only difference was that now it had been found with feathers.

I do not care to get into a discussion of whether or not Microraptor should be called a dinosaur or a bird. What I want to note is that Microraptor was once classified as a dinosaur and was only reclassified as a bird (by some) when it was found to have feathers. Thus, it was traditionally a dinosaur that was found to have feathers.

Saying that Microraptor used to be considered a dinosaur but was found with feathers forces creationists into one of two positions. Either 1) some dinosaurs have feathers or 2) the definition of a bird has to change. If Microraptor is a feathered dinosaur, then conclusion 1) is obvious. If Microraptor is a bird, then all of the features that used to make it a dinosaur now have to be considered as bird features, thus forcing conclusion 2). Either way, there has been a major change in the way creationists view dinosaur and bird fossils. (By the way, the majority of creationists go with the latter option, though there are a few who lean toward the former option).[6]My point is not to make a case that “this group gets paleontology wrong” or “that group gets paleontology wrong.” It is simply that there are unexpected finds in paleontology no matter what you think about the origins of species. Neither creationists nor evolutionists have cornered the marked on “complete paleontological accuracy,” in large part because there is still a lot about fossils and fossil creatures that we still do not know. This lack of knowledge is easily filled in with what “should be the case,” given whatever worldview one happens to hold. Thus something that should be a biased opinion gets elevated to “paleontological accuracy,” such as fuzz on Tyrannosaurus. We have to be careful with these claims of paleontological accuracy, because some of them are not.

Thoughts from Steven

[1]Bell, Phil; Nicolás Campione; W. Scott Person; Philip Currie; Peter Larson; Darren Tanke; and Robert Bakker (2017) “Tyrannosauroid integument reveals conflicing patterns of gigantism and feather evolution” Biology Letters 13: 20170092, I want to point out that two of these authors, Philip Currie and Robert Bakker, are prominent paleontologists and one of them, Robert Bakker, is a huge proponent of feathered dinosaurs. This article was not written by covert creationists. It is simply that when it comes to the evidence for feathers on tyrannosaurs, there is none.

[2]Xu, Xing; Mark Norell; Xuewen Kuang; Xiaolin Wang; Qi Zhao; Chengkai Jia (2004) “Basal tyrannosauroids from China and evidence for protofeathers in tyrannosauroids” Nature 431:680-684

[3]Xu, Xing; Kebai Wang; Ke Zhang; Qingyu Ma; Lida Xing; Corwin Sullivan; Dongyu Hu; Shuqing Cheng; Shua Wang (2012) “A gigantic feathered dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of China” Nature 484: 92-95

[4]Feduccia, Alan (2002) “Birds are Dinosaurs: Simple Answers to a Complex Problem” The Auk 119(4):1187-1201. In this article, not only does Feduccia classify Microraptor, and all other members of its family, as a dinosaur, it actually uses Microraptor‘s teeth as an example of how dinosaur teeth differ from bird teeth.

[5]Feduccia, Alan; Theagarten Lingham-Soliar; Richard Hinchliffe (2005) “Do Feathered Dinosaurs Exist? Testing the Hypothesis on Neontological and Paleontological Evidence” Journal of Morphology 266:10.1002/jmor.10382

[6]As a quick aside, some creationists have claimed that the Bible is silent on the issue of feathers on dinosaurs, thus creationists can accommodate dinosaurs with feathers or without. This is true, but it still doesn’t change my point, which is that prior to Microraptor gui, creationists did not expect dinosaurs to have feathers. No creationist illustrated dinosaurs with feathers, none speculated on feathered dinosaurs, none predicted dinosaurs had feathers. On the other hand, evolutionists had illustrated feathered dinosaurs, speculated on feathered dinosaurs, and predicted feathered dinosaurs, which means that evolutionists actually “predicted” Microraptor gui better than creationists did.