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How Do We Know Dinosaurs Had Feathers? Some Key Evidence

Based on the dinosaur illustrations that many of us grew up seeing and movies such as the Jurassic Park series, people tend to believe that dinosaurs had smooth, lizard-like skin. While that’s true of some species, evidence suggests that many more dinosaurs were covered in feathers. How do we know this?

We know that dinosaurs had feathers based on amber that was uncovered in 2011. The amber contained dinosaur (and bird) feathers from the Cretaceous Era some 75 or 80 million years ago. Also, fossil impressions of dinosaur skin contained quill-like protofeathers. The purpose of dinosaur feathers was mostly for insulation.

There’s more evidence that dinosaurs had feathers, including some of your favorite species, and we’ll talk about that ahead. We’ll also touch on why being a feathered dinosaur was more advantageous than you might have thought.

Let’s get started!

Fossil Evidence Supporting the Idea That Dinosaurs Had Feathers

There are lots of misconceptions that films and TV have taught us. For example, did you know that cats aren’t supposed to drink milk or that wild rabbits don’t feed on carrots and other vegetables?

These misconceptions even expanded to dinosaurs. As media continued to portray dinosaurs as smooth-skinned lizard-like creatures, that became what we believed without a doubt that dinosaurs look like.

Deinonychus-depicted-with-full-set-of-feathers-AdventureDinosaurs
Deinonychus depicted with a full set of feathers – AdventureDinosaurs

Then that all changed.

In 2011, paleontologists uncovered amber samples in Alberta, Canada, containing feathers likely from dinosaurs. According to the Canadian news resource CBC, the feathers recovered are protofeathers exclusive to theropods.

The first instance of feathers being collected from dinosaur fossils occurred in the early 1990s in China, but this Canadian expedition provided much more conclusive evidence.

The age of the feathers was predicted to be somewhere between 70 and 80 million years old, which would have put the living dinosaurs squarely in the Cretaceous Era. Granted, the feathers didn’t exclusively belong to dinosaurs, but birds that lived at this time as well.

Upon examining the feathers, the paleontologists found that the protofeathers had both simpler and complex designs. The more complex, the closer the colors of the feathers were to today’s birds. The more basic protofeathers were dark.

Each protofeather consisted of filament clumps and measured two centimeters, which is 0.787 inches.

The paleontologists recovered 11 feather specimens, in which non-destructive high-resolution X-ray imaging is planned to be performed to better understand them.

We do know some facts, though. If you thought that the dinosaurs of the time used these feathers for flight, think again. Mostly, the purpose of feathers was for insulation, aka a means of keeping dinosaurs warm.

It is interesting considering that the Cretaceous Era was known for its warm weather, including compared to other periods of the Phanerozoic Era. However, mountainous regions were common during the Cretaceous Era, so that it might have been colder there.

Did All Dinosaurs Have Feathers? Did T. Rex Have Feathers?

What you thought you knew about dinosaurs was probably shaken up after you learned that they had feathers, right? Now you can’t help but wonder, were feathers a feature common of every dinosaur or only a select few?

No, not every dinosaur possessed feathers. This 2020 article from the Natural History Museum in the UK states that up to 77 different dinosaur species had feathers. The majority of them are theropods, carnivorous theropods. Although we still don’t know how many dinosaur species exist in totality, we are aware of at least 700 species as of this writing.

That means that more than 600 dinosaurs would have been feather-free.

The National History Museum article mentions that dinosaurs with armor (scales), horns, or duckbills were not known to have feathers. It means that early dinosaurs lacked feathers and that the feathers developed evolutionarily as a means of survival.

YouTube Video Showing Some Proof of Feathers in a Raptor Dinosaur Fossil

YouTube video by Brave Wilderness (starts at 3:51) showing a non-avian theropod dinosaur fossil and suspected evidence of feathers – AdventureDinosaurs

So which dinosaurs did have feathers? As we mentioned in the last section, feathers were found to be common of theropods, which are dinosaurs with three toes per limb and hollow bones. (Source)

Which dinosaurs are theropods? Here’s a list:

  • Eoraptor
  • Eodromaeus
  • Daemonosaurus
  • Dilophosaurus
  • Gojirasaurus
  • Zupaysaurus
  • Segisaurus
  • Liliensternus
  • Tawa
  • Daemonosaurus
  • Spinostropheus
  • Limusaurus
  • Elaphrosaurus
  • Noasaurus
  • Rugops
  • Xaunhanosaurus
  • Chuandongocoelurus
  • Irritator
  • Allosaurus

We can’t say for certain whether these species all had feathers since we just don’t know. The chances, though, are pretty good.

I write a lot about sauropods on the website. I was recently asked if sauropods had feathers. Sauropods, especially prosauropods and titanosaurs, were covered in scales (known as osteoderms) and likely didn’t have feathers. Dicraeosaur sauropods were covered in scales and spikes which pointed backward or forwards on their neck and back. Which dinosaurs are sauropods? Here’s a list:

  • Antetonitrus
  • Vulcanodon
  • Spinophorosaurus
  • Shunosaurus
  • Barapasaurus
  • Patagosaurus
  • Mamenchisaurus
  • Omeisaurus
  • Jobaria
  • Haplocanthosaurus
  • Limaysaurus
  • Nigersaurus
  • Amargasaurus
  • Dicraeosaurus
  • Apatosaurus
  • Barosaurus
  • Diplodocus
  • Camarasaurus
  • Brachiosaurus
  • Phuwiangosaurus
  • Malawisaurus
  • Rapetosaurus
  • Isisaurus
  • Opisthocoelicaudia
  • Saltasaurus

Okay, so you have to ask. What about the Tyrannosaurus Rex itself? It is the dinosaur that many people perceive as the most ferocious predator to have ever existed. It’s been immortalized forever through movies like Jurassic Park, which always invariably feature a T. Rex as their biggest baddie. (Source)

There’s no way such a mean dinosaur as the T. Rex was covered in feathers, right?

Perhaps it was.

This March 2019 article from The New York Times discusses a T. Rex-related discovery by Mark Norell in 2004. Norell had found a sauropod called the Dilong that lived about 126 million years back. The Dilong is noteworthy since it’s a basal tyrannosaurid. In other words, it was a tyrannosaur, much like the beloved T. Rex.

The Dilong fossils that Norell recovered were covered in feathers, marking the first time a tyrannosaur with feathers was reported. Since studying the Dilong feathers, scientists have put forth their belief that all tyrannosaurs likely had feathers.

How-do-we-know-dinosaurs-had-feathers-AdventureDinosaurs

That would mean the T. Rex would be among them.

It’s not that hard to imagine. The same New York Times article mentions an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York that displayed T. Rexes with feathers. Sure, the dinosaurs aren’t covered from head to toe in downy feathers in the exhibits, but even just a few feathers on their heads or bodies really change how we see the T. Rex.

Some believe that the T. Rex might have outgrown its feathers by reaching adulthood, especially since they were used for warmth. Yet that theory has not been proven nor disproven.

The Advantages of Having Feathers – A Comparison with Modern-Day Birds

As we talked about earlier, the first dinosaurs are not believed to have feathers. Thus, as dinosaurs evolved, feathers appeared, but why? What advantages did the feathers serve?

That’s exactly what we want to explore in this section, so let’s dive into the benefits of feathered dinosaurs now.

Insulation

It is the big one that we talked about throughout this article. Although dinosaur fossils with feathers date back to the Cretaceous Era, it’s unclear if that’s when the first instance of dinosaur feathers existed.

Even before the Cretaceous during the Jurassic Period, warm weather dominated, but there had to be instances of cold, or dinosaurs wouldn’t have had feathers.

Newborns would especially benefit from feathers. Some dinosaur species are believed to have guarded their young while others didn’t. If a very young dinosaur didn’t have the protection of its parent, what would keep it warm? It doesn’t have much body heat of its own, so that it wouldn’t survive.

Feathers would prolong the dinosaur’s survival so it could grow into adulthood, mate, and continue the propagation of the species. (Source)

Further, theropods were warm-blooded, much like modern birds. It means the creature produced its own heat. By retaining body heat through feathers, their endothermic metabolism didn’t have to work quite as hard.

Lift

Birds use their feathers to achieve flight, as the air pockets within the feathers generate lift that allows the bird to ascend. As we established earlier, just because a dinosaur had feathers didn’t mean it could automatically fly.

Yet dinosaurs could achieve lift, albeit in a completely different way. When running, the air pockets within the feathers would propel the dinosaur forward through lift. Whether the dinosaur was chasing its next meal or escaping prey, having that slight speed boost was certainly advantageous for the dinosaur’s survival.

Mating

When choosing a partner to mate with, feathers might have played a role. We already discussed earlier that more complex protofeathers had unique patterns, so who’s to say they weren’t colorful as well?

Colorful feathers could certainly attract a mate, as the presence of the feathers indicates a healthy, mature dinosaur. Some experts believe that stegosaurs had large triangular plates and that sauropods had lengthy necks for the same reason, to attract mates.

Still, the colorful feathers being used to lure in a partner probably doesn’t remind you of dinosaurs at all, but rather, peacocks. Male peacocks display vivid, dazzling colors to inspire females to mate with them. Maybe theropod dinosaurs did the same but on a much less grand scale, of course.

Conclusion

Feathers were an unlikely but proven feature of many dinosaur species, mostly theropods. That includes dinosaurs such as the T. Rex, although the extent of its feathers has not yet been confirmed.

The next time you imagine a dinosaur, if you then picture it with feathers, it will be a more accurate representation!