Palaeos of a Feather, Communicate Together!

No feathers. #JP4. With that short sharp statement on 21st March via Twitter, Colin Trevorrow, the director of the forthcoming instalment of the Jurassic Park franchise has sent the palaeo community into a frenzy of disbelief and dismay. But after going to see Jurassic Park 3D (it’s still awesome) on Saturday night and being painfully reminded of it every time a theropod was on-screen, I believe that since there doesn’t seem to be any chance of the feathered dinosaurs being accurately portrayed in the new JP we, the palaeo community, should try to turn this disappointing situation to our advantage and communicate how dinosaurs actually were in life.

Even large theropods such as this Yutyrannus huali have been found with some sort of fuzzy covering. Artwork by Brian Choo.
Even large theropods such as this Yutyrannus huali have been found with some sort of fuzzy covering. Artwork by Brian Choo.

In the coming year there will be a wave of publicity as the release of JP4 nears. We should be riding the crest of this wave and using it as a soapbox to communicate to the public that no, dinosaurs were not just scaly monsters, but as we’re coming to realise, multiple species had feathers, feathers were a common characteristic of dinosaurs and some sort of fuzzy covering appears to have been have even more widespread across the various dinosaur lineages.

Let me be clear though, when I read the news that there would be no feathers in JP4 I was as aghast as the next evidence appreciating person. But having had time to reflect on the decision (which appears to be based on “continuity”) I am determined to not let this prevent the truth that many dinosaurs were feathered from getting communicated to as many members of the public as possible. I’m aware it’s not like scientists have hid these finds away from the public until now, but judging by the amount of people commenting on the various articles covering this announcement that actually support the decision and don’t seem aware of it, there are still people who don’t realise just how prevalent feathers were and how the behaviours and traits they associate with birds only were already there in dinosaurs (I know they are actually the same thing). Just because the dinosaurs you imagined in your childhood were scaly dragon-esque creatures doesn’t mean that they have to remain that way forever (or else they would still be swamp dwelling, tail dragging leviathans).

Citipati is shown here brooding on its nest of eggs in a pose that you can still see today in living birds. Image from Clark et al. 1999.
Citipati is shown here brooding on its nest of eggs in a pose that you can still see today in living birds. Image from Clark et al. 1999.

So consider this as a call-to-arms (of the communicational variety). I know that a lot of science writers will already be planning to do this or already have done so to a certain extent. So this may seem to some people like I’m stating the obvious here. But I’m not just talking about people like myself who are regularly communicating science via blogs, Twitter etc. If we, as a community, make as much noise as we can, via as many media as possible when the public is just about to see the new movie, then we can ensure that more people than ever before are aware not only that many dinosaurs were feathered, but also convey to the public how much our understanding is improving of these magnificent creatures. The biggest success story of vertebrate palaeontology in the past two decades is the overwhelming confirmation that birds are in fact living dinosaurs. If Colin Trevorrow isn’t going to show the world just how awesome feathered dinos were, then it’s up to us.

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