Say It With Feathers?

“Best evidence yet that dinosaurs used feathers for courtship,” reads the headline from the University of Alberta’s press release today. Immediately, my mind’s eye saw a cartoon dinosaur holding a bouquet of feathers for his date. “Here, honey,” he’d say. “These are for you.”

Of course, dinosaurs did not stop at a local FTD or other florist shop before going courting. Nonetheless, the new discovery is a feather in the cap of University of Alberta researcher Scott Persons.

Persons’ paleontology studies focused on fossils for four species of two-legged, plant-eating dinosaurs called oviraptors. The final vertebrae (back bones) of the fossils were fused together as a pygostyle. That’s a ridged, blade-like structure. It occurs today only in birds.

Fossils found with one species, Similicaudiptery, showed that feathers came out from the tail tip. Based on the bone structure and studies of muscles on modern reptiles and birds, Persons concluded that they and other oviraptors would strut their stuff to attract a mate. Today’s turkeys and peacocks do this when they fan out their tail feathers in courtship displays.

So, what does this mean? Well, if you’re like me, you probably played with plastic dinosaurs when you were little. I felt pretty cool memorizing long names and learning about these ancient reptiles. Yet Persons and other paleontologists are still making significant discoveries about them. There’s lots more for all of us to learn.

My first impression upon seeing the press release is also notable, because it was wrong. Sure, this is an age of sound bites and instant information. Yet we all need to read beyond the headlines. Getting the whole story is important for science and for life in general.

And finally: Dinosaurs were cool when I was little. They’re still cool now.
Go oviraptors! Strut your stuff!

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