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Is the Latest “Feathered Dinosaur” Actually a Secondarily Flightless Bird?

MSNBC recently had an article titled “Fine-feathered dino sported bizarre bird tail,” reporting on the find of Epidexipteryx hui, a “pigeon-sized dinosaur that lived more than 100 million years ago [that] sported four ribbon-like tail feathers.” (See right for an artist’s imaginative interpretation of the fossil.) One of the original paper’s authors states, “Although this dinosaur cannot be the direct ancestor for birds, it is one of the dinosaurs that have the closest phylogenetic relationship to birds.” The article also contains other quotes with typical Darwinist rhetoric like, “[t]his find confirms the link between dinosaurs and birds.” But are other interpretations possible? Unreported in the media is the fact that the paper contains language directly hinting that Epidexipteryx hui could also be “interpreted as secondarily flightless.” In other words, Epidexipteryx hui may not have been a “feathered dinosaur” at all, but instead was a bird that lost its ability to fly while retaining feathers. There are many well-known modern-day examples of secondarily flightless birds, e.g. the well-known ostrich. In fact, what the media never tells us is that similar interpretations have already been made for other alleged “feathered dinos.”

Bird evolution expert Alan Feduccia believes that “Caudipteryx and Protoarchaeopteryx, in fact, are replete with features of secondarily flightless Mesozoic sauriurine birds…” (The Origin and Evolution of Birds, pg. 396, Yale University Press, 1999.) Likewise a Nature paper from 2000, co-authored by five scientists, suggested that “Caudipteryx was a secondarily flightless, post-Archaeopteryx, cursorial bird” because “it [is] a striking coincidence that the only unambiguously feathered theropod was also the only known theropod likely to have utilized locomotory mechanisms identical to those of cursorial birds.” Feduccia writes:

Given the now substantial evidence that certain taxa once thought to be dinosaurs (e.g. Caudipteryx, Protarchaeopteryx, and the Oviraptosauria; Maryanska et al. 2002) are most likely secondarily flightless birds, and the new hypothesis that certain dinosaurs were secondarily flightless descendants of Mesozoic birds (Paul 2002), we must now carefully consider the possibility that there may have been a number of radiations of secondarily flightless Mesozoic birds that evolved morphologies quite similar to theropod dinosaurs.

It seems that the “feathered dino” interpretation may be driven by an attempt to fit these fossils into the standard evolutionary paradigm, not the data. Unfortunately, the view that these fossils are not feathered dinos but are rather secondarily flightless birds is a possibility that is not being communicated to the public in the media.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.