In 2016 fossilized remains of feathers attached to a bony tail preserved in a 99 million year old amber fossil captured international attention. This wasn’t the first time that feathers have been found in amber but earlier feather discoveries were of feathers by themselves. This time unmistakable feathers were found attached to a structure which was identified as the tail of a small dinosaur. These were clearly feathers, however, they are morphologically distinct from the feathers of birds alive today and lack many specific characteristics of flight feathers.
It was a wonderful discovery and probably just the first of many future discoveries. Feathers are very scarce in the fossil record. They decay easily and even when preserved they are difficult to interpret. For many years is was assumed that all dinosaurs had skin much like reptiles alive today. But it seems this view is partially due to the incomplete nature of the fossil record, a lack of attention paid to possible feathers, and technological constraints.
Today, some fossils which were described decades ago have recently been re-examined and found to contain evidence of preservation of feather remains in part because we have far better tools for examining fossils and because scientists now realized it might be worth looking for them. But it is the discovery of exceptionally preserved fossils in one region of China since 2000 that has done the most to change our view of dinosaurs.
The Young-earth creationist’ (YEC) response to feathered dinosaurs
Over the past decade a flood of new fossils and continued studies of old fossils has built a stronger and stronger case that many dinosaurs – particularly the theropods – had at least some form of feathery plumage not related to the ability to fly. The first—and in some cases continued—response of YECs was denial. Fossils were either fakes or the feathers weren’t really feathers. But the onslaught of feathery fossils has forced YECs to continually respond to each new discovery and they have evolved some new arguments.
As I will demonstrate below, some YECs have softened their once absolute statements or have altered their definition of what constitutes a bird to accommodate the new feathered fossils.
But let’s allow the YECs to respond with their own words. What I have done is copied the last summary paragraph of many articles over the past 10 years. Yes, the context is missing in some cases but the general flavor of their conclusions should be apparent and I have provided links to the original articles if you wish to consider the full context.
Below all of these quotes I have summarized the YEC responses and provided my speculation about what I had expected the YEC response to this feathered dinosaur tail to be. Lastly, I include a string of updates made over the following month to document the YEC responses up to the present.
A collection of YEC responses to reports of feathered dinosaurs
Fossil Fibers Befuddle Dinosaur Evolution. Brian Thomas 2009 M.S. (Institute for Creation Research)
There is no such thing in the real world as a feathered dinosaur. The news that this non-theropod dinosaur had fibers just adds more scientific evidence to corroborate the historical evidence that dinosaurs were created, not evolved.
What if dinosaurs really had feathers? Elizabeth Mitchell (M.D.) 2015. (Answers in Genesis)
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.
Feathered Raptors: Not the Birds (AiG, no author) 2007
It would be reading far too much into this story to say that evidence for feathered dinosaurs has been discovered; all we have here are six questionable indentations in a fossil bone allegedly from a velociraptor (not that we’re casting doubt on the researchers’ integrity; we simply recognize the role presuppositions and evolutionary dogma play in classifying and extrapolating on fossils, as well as the desire for many media outlets to trumpet evolutionary “proofs” long before they’re given a chance to be thoroughly studied). We eagerly await further research into the find.
Another feathered dinosaur? News to Note (no author), 2007
The problem is, with the bones unlikely to be examined by a creationist paleontologist anytime soon, Gigantoraptor will no doubt be added to the list of “missing links” between dinosaurs and birds. Scant fossils are increasingly being shoehorned into evolutionary roles, with fanciful extrapolations trumping careful analysis of actual unearthed bones; this treatment yields what are often little more than modern-day “Nebraska men.”
Is Jurassic World Wrong for Portraying Dinosaurs without Feathers? Avery Foley 2015 (M.S. biblical studies) AiG. I have written about this article before: The Dangers of Poor Scholarship: A Creationist’s take on Feathered Dinosaurs.
Did dinosaurs have feathers? In a biblical worldview, we do not expect to find feathered dinosaurs. Currently the evidence does not support the idea that dinosaurs were covered in feathers. Now while we may not know for sure what dinosaurs looked like, what we do know is that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs. They—like dinosaurs—were specially created by God in the beginning to reproduce according to their kind.
Was Tiny Feathered Creature Dinosaur or Bird? Elizabeth Mitchell, 2013
The fossil record does not reveal an evolutionary progression in feather development, nor does it reveal transitional animals that are part bird and part dinosaur. The order of fossils in the fossil record is largely a record of the order various creatures were buried when their habitats were overcome by the rising waters of the biblical global Flood. This happened in the space of a few weeks, not millions of years. The presumed millions of years are based on unverifiable assumptions. Thus the fossil record does not demonstrate that birds evolved from dinosaurs, just as in the history of biology, no scientific observations have ever shown a way that dinosaurs could acquire the genetic information to make the dramatic changes that would have been necessary to evolve into birds.
Feathered Dinosaurs Found in Canada? Elizabeth Mitchell, 2012
Given the lack of visible feathers, the data about these ornithomimids remains inconclusive. Without definitive feathers, they may just be dinosaurs. Or they may be extinct birds, descendants of the birds God made in the beginning. God made all kinds of birds on the 5th day of Creation week and land animals such as dinosaurs on the 6th. And nothing about this study demonstrates the evolution of feathers or the evolution of birds.
A Feathered Dinosaur? “Kids Answers” Page (AiG), 2008
Although no actual feathers were found with the velociraptor fossil (or any other dinosaur fossil, for that matter), it may be that some dinosaurs had feathers. But this group of animals would merely be a kind of feathered reptile—descendants of the animals that God created in the beginning. Feathers on reptiles have nothing to do with proving that one kind of animal changed into another kind. They just show the creativity and diversity of our wonderful Creator God!
One-Ton ‘Feathered’ Dinosaur? 2012 Brian Thomas M.S. (Institute for Creation Research)
The famous Chinese dinosaurs probably began rotting as they were transported in Noah’s Floodwaters only 4,500 or so years ago, even as modern carcasses rot. The soluble flesh rotted first, leaving behind more resistant fibers that were then fossilized.
As is the case with other famous claims of Chinese fossil dinosaur “feathers,” these are more straightforwardly interpreted as being the fossilized fragments of partly decayed skin. Researchers compared the fossil fibers to skin filaments from decaying carcasses, and found an excellent match.
Why would so many headlines report that fossil feathers are present? Scientists themselves are not certain that the filaments are actually feathers. And a better explanation fits.
Dinosaurs Designed without Feathers Tim Clarey Ph.D (Geology) ICR 2016
While a “feathered” dinosaur would fit the evolutionary worldview, this theory is not supported by data-driven science. Like Scansoriopteryx, the true feathers and unusual body dimensions of Z. suni do not add up to a dinosaur but rather a bird. Again and again, fossils support that birds were birds and dinosaurs were dinosaurs from the moment of creation, just as Genesis says.
Did Some Dinosaurs Really Have Feathers? Frank Sherwin M.A. and Brian Thomas M.S.
A feathered dinosaur may someday be discovered. But even then, feathers on a dinosaur would not solve evolution’s biophysical impasse of converting a reptile skeleton into that of a bird. And so far, the evidence for feathered dinosaurs is much better interpreted as decayed skin fibers. Overall, fossils show that dinosaurs and birds have always been separate creatures.12 And this is exactly what one would expect if dinosaurs and birds were created separately, each to reproduce “after their kind.”
Four-winged Dinosaur Definition Doesn’t Fly Brian Thomas M.S. 2014
Perhaps like the recent author who reverted back to calling a long-time bird a dinosaur after a second look at the evidence,2 these evolutionary researchers may one day regret having referred to Changyuraptor as a “four-winged dinosaur.” Changyuraptor had none of the transitional features required to morph a real dinosaur into a bird. True, it was unlike any of today’s familiar birds, but as the saying goes, if it quacks like a duck, has feathers like a duck, then it’s probably a duck. In this case, bird wings and feathers don’t make a dinosaur, but rather an exquisitely well-fashioned four-winged flying bird.
A summary of responses:
There are three themes in YEC responses: 1) The dinosaurs are really birds, 2) The feathers are just filaments of decaying skin/scales, and 3) fossils are possibly fakes or hybrids of birds and dinosaurs. Some of these articles include all three responses.
But the weight of evidence that many dinosaurs had some downy plumage has become overwhelming in recent years. As a result I am seeing is a fourth caveat thrown into many articles which states that the Bible doesn’t say that dinosaurs couldn’t have feathers and so if they are found this would just show dinosaurs were more diverse than we thought. I can’t help but wonder though, if they really believe that fuzzy or feathered dinosaurs aren’t a problem then why have they put up such strong resistance to every new fossil find that seems to display feathers?
With regards to the 2016 feathered tail fossil, I predicted that it will be pronounced as nothing more than the remains of a bird and therefore the feathers should not be news at all. I also believed a caveat would be added that dinosaurs could have had feathers thus covering themselves against any future discovery that is even more clear than this one.
My advice to Elizabeth Mitchell—who will probably be tasked with crafting the Answers in Genesis response (update: I was wrong about Mitchell, it was AiG’s Dr. Menton who ended up responding)—was that she should decide it is time to make a break from YECs in the past and pronounce that God did create some dinosaurs with feathers. The longer AiG holds out the harder it becomes to make the transition to a new YEC paradigm of understanding dinosaurs. Of course to come to such a conclusion she would have to—ironically—infer this from historical evidence. But they have been inferring from historical evidence all along that dinosaurs didn’t have feathers. Since the Bible is silent on this topic shouldn’t we and AiG be free to draw conclusions based on where the evidence takes us?
The first YEC response to this feathered tail did not come from AiG or ICR but rather came within days from Dr. Todd Wood (Core Academy of Science). Dr. Wood responded in his typical manner of wonder and amazement and interestingly—though not suprising given his pension for not agreeing with the YEC consensus—he recognized what this fossil probably represents: a dinosaur with feathers. Here is part of what he had to say (God made dinosaurs with beautiful feathers):
My first impression was that it was a beautiful fossil, but how do we know it’s a dinosaur? First of all, it’s not a bird, at least not a modern bird. Modern birds don’t have long tails like this. Could it be one of those weird fossil birds with long tails like Archaeopteryx? The tail bones (visible in scans of the fossil) aren’t the right shape, and there seems to be more flexibility to this tail (because it’s bent) than to tails of fossil birds with tails. That means that it’s probably a dinosaur of some kind, since they’re the only other critters we know of that had feathers like this. Am I 100% sure it’s a dinosaur? No, nobody is, but it sure does look like one based on what we know about dinosaurs and birds.
Unfortunately, Todd Wood open approach to the data is not shared by most YECs and he has little influence with the large YEC organizations that dominate the creationist’ world and I didn’t think they would follow in his footsteps – at least not yet. (2018 update: see footnote for evidence some YECs are coming around to feathered dinosaurs)
The slippery slope of bird-dinosaur determination for YECs
The bird question has been a long slippery slope for YECs for some time. With each new discovery they have had to redefine what a bird is to maintain their insistence that birds and reptiles are distinct kinds with no common ancestry with reptiles. For example, in the past, the presence of a bony flexible tail, true teeth, and claws on the “hands” of birds would not have been traits of birds but exclusively of dinosaurs. But, while YECs might say that it is possible dinosaurs could have had feathers they don’t seem to believe this. They seem to associate feathers as a unique trait of birds. They are the feature that anyone can use to distinguish these two groups and so it is hard to give that character up. So the presence of feathers has caused them to reinterpret all other characters. When feathers are found on fossils with a bony tail, that animal with a bony tail suddenly must be a bird. When that fossil has claws at the end of an arm that has feather then it must have been a bird even if it clearly could not have flown. If the fossil had teeth instead of a beak it is a dinosaur but then if feathers are found on that same fossil it suddenly becomes a bird. This is why I expected the main YEC leaders woudl be so tempted to call this newest find a bird.
Below are responses from YEC organizations and individuals as they arrived over the weeks following the feathered tail news.
Update #1: Brian Thomas (ICR science writer) has responded on Facebook. To no ones surprise, he says it is just a bird.
Four details about the feathered “dinosaur” tail in amber suggest it was actually a bird. Did you know…
1. The tail tip with feathers in amber does not include the rest of the body.
2. The study authors admitted it could be a bird.
3. Not one single fossil has ever yet shown bird feathers like these on a classic dinosaur. They only occur on “dinosaur” fossils where evolutionists bend the word “dinosaur” to include extinct birds.
4. So far, all flight feathers like these in amber have been attached to actual birds, whether extant or extinct.
I’m not sure he knows or can define what a “classic” dinosaur is? And to point #4, no one thinks these are flight feathers. His argument is basically one of absence of evidence dictates this must be a bird but he doesn’t address the bony tail which would not fit his previous understanding of what a bird kinds is.
Here are a few FB responses to Thomas’ thoughts about the fossil. These illustrate the deep skepticism in science that ICR has cultivated in its followers.
Update #2 (about 3 hours later). Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis has weighed in. This fossil is nothing but another bird. I expect a more detailed response in a few days to be a repetition of all the same arguments they have made about other fossils.
Check back Monday for a more comprehensive analysis from our anatomist, Dr. David Menton (who is calling fowl). At this time, we see no reason to consider this anything but a bird.
Update #3. The Institute for Creation Research (ICR) has now published a longer response. The article “Another Feathered Dinosaur Tale” is by Frank Sherwin (M.S. Parisitology). He uses every argument used in my quotes above to cast doubt on the description of this fossil and then concludes:
In short, all the available evidence about this “feathered dinosaur” tail in amber suggests it was actually a bird.
Update #4. Marcus Ross(Ph.D Geosciences) did his doctoral work on mosasaurs and is a Assistant Professor at Liberty University. He holds to YEC as does Liberty University. He has written articles for some of the larger YEC apologetics organizations but is not affiliated with any of them much like Todd Wood. However, he has much stronger credentials to speak on the topic of dinosaur fossils since he has legitimate training in this area. On his FB page over the weekend, he talked about teaching paleontology at Liberty University what he is going to be telling his students about this fossil find.
Taken as a whole, I think that there is ample evidence that many dinosaurs had some kind of fluff/fuzz that covered their body, and that several of these dinosaurs also had honest-to-goodness feathers. That puts me in a pretty tiny minority among young-Earth creationists. Not alone, but a minority.
He also talked about previous YEC responses to reports of dinosaurs with feathers noting the same things I have above and then making a very helpful observation:
You can see this in many of the online articles. This is what is said in their DVDs and videos. It’s the case with many of the books and technical papers written by creationists. A bit troubling, though, is that NONE of these videos, books, or papers about dinosaurs and feathers were written by a creationist trained in paleontology.
This is a huge problem for the main YEC organizations. ICR has had a M.S. in parisitology and ICR will have a M.D. interpreting the paleotonological literature for the young-earth community. Ross and Wood have far more research experience and both seem to have concluded that there is plenty of evidence that many dinosaurs probably had feathers but ICR and AiG just keep pushing forward in their denial.
Update #5. Dec. 12, 2016. AiG published their full response by Dr. David Menton (medical biologist) to the fossil. As expected he said that this is just a bird with a bony tail. His conclusion: “I reject the age assigned to these fossils, but it shows that small birds, perhaps juveniles, left evidence of their unquestionably bird-like anatomy in Burmese amber.”
Update #6. Summer of 2018. This summer the International Conference of Creation will be held in Pittsburgh. The abstracts for the talks to be given at that meeting have been published. One of those abstract by McLain, Petrone and Speights is titled: Feathered dinosaurs reconsidered. Here is the abstract in its entirety.
Abstract: Birds could not have evolved from land animal ancestors because Genesis clearly states that birds and land animals were created on separate days. As a result, young-earth creationists have consistently opposed the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Nevertheless, numerous fossils of dinosaurs with feathers, including some very bird-like dinosaurs, have been found in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We determined to understand what these fossils mean in a creationist context through a survey of their fossil record and statistical baraminological analyses. While the survey demonstrates that feathered dinosaur fossils do, in fact, exist, the baraminological analyses suggest that there are probably at least seven different created kinds of non-avialan dinosaurs. The existence of multiple created kinds of non-avialan dinosaurs, non-avian avialans, and avians without an enormous morphological gulf between these groups, although historically unexpected in creationism, is argued through this study to be an accurate picture for their designed organization. Because of these results, creationists need to rethink the way they understand the organization of life, especially as it relates to tetrapods in order to better represent the full spectrum of God’s created variety.
I have highlighted the most important sentence. These authors are directly contradicting the message of Ken Ham and other YEC organizations that have been telling their followers that there is a clear distinction between dinosaurs and birds as categories. Here the authors recognize the distinctions are far less obvious as I have discussed (see also: Ken Ham on Dinosaur extinction, de-extinction, DNA and dino-bird distinctions)
Update #7. September 2018. Answers in Genesis publishes and “in depth” article on birds and dinosaurs by Dr. Menton, “Did Dinosaurs Evolve into Birds?.” Dr. Menton ignores the International Creation Conference abstract and presentation and simply regurgitates all of the same arguments that he has used in the past about dinosaur and birds including suggesting most fossil dinosaurs with evidence of feathers are fakes. He concludes that there is not compelling reason to believe dinosaurs had feathers without responding to any of the evidence that his YEC colleagues have produced otherwise.
Finally, feathers appear to be as unique to birds as hairs are to mammals. Fossilized impressions of dinosaur skin resemble the skin of an alligator, not feathers on birds. Based on current evidence, there is no compelling reason to believe that true dinosaurs had feathers, or that they were related to birds.
This article has been revised and updated since it first appeared on Naturalis Historia in December of 2016.