Heads and tails – Microraptor feathers

From Li et al., 2012

Much has been said about the recent Science paper reporting on the possibility, or perhaps rather probability, that Microraptor had iridescent feathers. So much so awesome, but there are, for me, other interesting things that are buried in the supplementary data to the paper that I’ve not seen mentioned so far (not that I have widely read coverage of the paper, I mostly just read the paper).

First off, as seen above, the idea that things like Microraptor and others (Anchiornis being the most obvious candidate) had some little crest of feathers on the head. As shown by the X-ray, pigeons have a very similar arrangement of feathers and yet it’s simply part of the natural contours of the feathers and their position. Basically the feathers really are preserved as they were in life, and that this isn’t anything odd or expanded but that the shape of the head (with feathers) would be very modern bird-like.

Secondly, the tail was noted to have two rather elongate streamers in the midline and this looked familiar but I couldn’t place my finger on it. Now I have it, it is, for me, really quite similar to what you see in European magpies. There’s an obvious tail fan there, but in the middle, the feathers are rather longer, though not *that* exaggerated. Given the implications for signalling advocated in the paper, I’d be intrigued to know if people have looked at these feathers alone in magpies and how they are used or if birds are affected socially when they are trimmed or absent – could be something there to look at one day.

From Li et al., 2012

Li, et al. Reconstruction of Microraptor and the Evolution of Iridescent Plumage. Science 9 March 2012: 1215-1219.DOI:10.1126/science.1213780

16 Responses to “Heads and tails – Microraptor feathers”

  1. 1 Heinrich Mallison 16/03/2012 at 8:57 am

    And as usual, people ignore German research that shows conclusively what they only guess or reason is happening:

    All Li. et al. write in their online supplement is: “Feathers on the skull previously interpreted as indicative of a loose crest in Microraptor (11) are more consistent with the slightly more elongate contour feathers typical in this region in extant Aves without a crest (Fig. S9).”

    Well, in fact, Christian Foth TESTED how the supposed crest comes about: it is a taphonomic artefact!

    Foth, C. 2012: On the identification of feather structures in stem-line representatives of birds: evidence from fossils and actuopalaeontology. Paläontologische Zeitschrift 86(1):91-102, DOI: 10.1007/s12542-011-0111-3

    This has been available online for an eternity.

    It’s lately been a trend to not even use google (or pretend not to use it), not to cite previous work, and in extreme cases even beat one’s own drum “we are the first to….” when in fact relevant or even identical stuff was published quite recently. Somehow, some people make their lives much too easy!


  2. 4 eotyrannus 16/03/2012 at 9:39 am

    In his review of Greg Paul’s recent book, Darren Naish said “Taphonomic experiments have shown that, when the bodies of modern birds are crushed flat, large feathery crests not present in life typically result (Foth 2011).” Foth’s paper has been the subject of substantial discussion and interest so far as I’m concerned. Re: Li et al‘s excellent paper – given their substantial discussion of sexual selection I wish that they had at least alluded to the possibility of mutual sexual selection…

    HONE, D., NAISH, D., & CUTHILL, I. (2011). Does mutual sexual selection explain the evolution of head crests in pterosaurs and dinosaurs? Lethaia DOI: 10.1111/j.1502-3931.2011.00300.x

    • 5 Heinrich Mallison 16/03/2012 at 11:20 am

      Yep, Darren: it is a trend lately that many bloggers do a better job of this than some researchers, even (or especially?) those publishing in very highly ranked journals.

      I know you’d never miss a paper on a squashed bird!🙂

      • 6 David Hone 16/03/2012 at 2:54 pm

        Well i always have some sympathy – it’s easy to miss papers that in hindsight you really should have found during your searches, or the referees should have pointed out, but yeah, some of them are totally inexplicable.

        A recent paper which will go unnamed was produced by certain close colleagues of mine, on a subject on which I had actively collaborated with them producing a couple of papers in the area, and they still failed to cite my direct, relevant and recent work. Faced with that as a barrier to getting citations, the over oversight looks rather less terrible.

      • 7 Andy Farke 16/03/2012 at 7:52 pm

        Some authors are worse than others on this, too. Nobody wants to be “that researcher” who is continually neglecting others’ work, and that can contribute to ballooning reference lists.

        Most frustrating is the difference between the original paper and the press release. One recent paper that comes to mind essentially confirmed the conclusions of a paper published by another author a full year before (w/some citations of the previous paper), but the press release mentioned nothing of the previous work!

      • 8 Heinrich Mallison 16/03/2012 at 8:16 pm

        One? More like fifteen papers/PRs….. *sigh*

      • 9 David Hone 16/03/2012 at 8:37 pm

        Not thinking of anything to do with ceratopsid crests / taxonomy are you Andy?😉

  3. 10 Heinrich Mallison 16/03/2012 at 3:02 pm

    David, that is indeed quite a difference – and this is not the first time I have heard people complain! In fact I know of cases where people helped by emailing their papers on request, later proof-reading manuscripts and STILL weren’t cited!
    In all it makes me wonder if this is a result of the increasing problems we all face in times of reduced funding: are we as a professional community becoming more cut-throat? or simply more hasty and sloppy?

    • 11 David Hone 16/03/2012 at 3:35 pm

      Well indeed – you can always miss one or two papers, even important and recent ones, it happens. But when it keeps happening, or a great many obvious and important things are missed it does kinda look bad.

      A recent paper focused on a very narrow aspect of pterosaur biology, so narrow in fact I think it was only the 4th paper on the subject ever and it didn’t cite 2 of the previous 3, even though both had come out in the last 5 years. Someone either wasn’t citing them deliberately (very poor practice) or hadn’t read them (poor scholarship) neither of which is a good thing to be.

      Ironically though, as I’ve noted on here before, you do also see the opposite effect too where you can be chastised for not citing *every* paper on the subject (‘why didn’t you include Hernandez at al. from the Brazilian journal of small museum in 1956, it’s online you should have read it….’). There has to be a balance, but of course when there are so few papers on a subject or something is dedicated it is odd.

      • 12 Heinrich Mallison 16/03/2012 at 3:41 pm

        Yep, indeed – balance! I got a slap on the wrist once for it from a reviewer, but I tend to cite “e.g.,….” a lot if there is a huge body of literature on an issue. Kinda makes people feel: “I guess he knows my work, but didn’t it consider one of the [insert how many I cited] most important works here.”

      • 13 David Hone 16/03/2012 at 3:51 pm

        Yep agreed. I have told students to cut done before on some things. I think the record was something like 16 citations for a point like ‘some theropods had feathers’ when all you really need is one or two good reviews (and there are plenty of them too).

        If there’s a good, recent, comprehensive review then just cite that. Something like the first paper, most recent or most important contribution are all that’s really needed most of the time.

  4. 14 eotyrannus 16/03/2012 at 4:00 pm

    Hi guys. Please read this article (perhaps not for the first time)..

    • 15 David Hone 16/03/2012 at 4:03 pm

      Oh I have read it two or three times before Darren.🙂 I’ve never written something like it myself because honestly you put it so well and I’m pretty sure I’ve flagged it up before once or twice. I’m just shoving in a couple of more recent direct examples that have happened to me.

  5. 16 Matt Martyniuk 20/03/2012 at 6:45 pm

    I wonder how it would be possible to test for the presence of an actual feather crest. Li et al. note that such crests usually have an origin much more rostral than the long feathers on the skull of Microraptor. IIRC the supposed crest of Anchiornis begins very close to the tip of the snout, possibly suggesting that the crest in this case is real. But it would be nice to have some more rigorous way to support that.

    The crest as reconstructed in the published anchironis skeletal also shows an odd ‘notch’ near the posterior base of the crest where the feathers are suddenly much shorter. The contour feathers as reconstructed in that skeletal are obviously all over the place due to taphonomic crushing, but I wonder if the feathers posterior to the ‘notch’ actually represent the normal neck feathers, and anterior to the notch represent an actual crest.

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