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  • A critical evaluation of Tianyulong confiusci – part 2

    Continuing from yesterday, the following is what I garnered from the Tianyulong confiusci specimen announced last week.

    When looking at the fossil, a couple preliminary questions came to mind.

    1. Is the fossil real?

    2. Is the integument real feathers/protofeathers?

    Is the fossil real?

    Main slab for _Tianyulong_ with highlights showing the breakage in the slab
    Main slab for Tianyulong with highlights showing the breakage in the slab. Click the image to enlarge.

    The initial paper gives no mention of how the fossil was collected (i.e. if it was collected by local farmers – as most of these fossils are – or if it was found in the field), so it is hard to tell how many hands this fossil has passed through before it was described. The specimen is broken into at least 3 different slabs (as shown in the first pic. Highlights [mine] show where breaks occur). The first, and most obvious, is across the top of the body, separating the dorsal vertebrae from the rest of the fossil. The second break, is a little less obvious. It appears to neatly separate the anterior part of the body, from the posterior part (pretty much right before the hip). It’s hard to tell from the photos, but this section might have been glued together. Whether this was before it reached the scientists, or after is left unclear. So there is room for suspicion there. The characters used to determine heterodontosaurid affinities come exclusively from the skull. The preservation of the hip makes it very hard to tell what one is looking at. The ischium appears quite a bit thicker than in Heterodontosaurus tucki. This could be chalked up to generic difference, or even an ontogenetic one. The authors mention the presence of extensive ossified tendons on both dorsal and ventral sides of the caudal vertebrae. This is actually unusual for an ornithopod. Ossified tendons tend to be arranged in a lattice-like geometry throughout the dorsal portions of the caudal verts, but not the ventral side. Tianyulong not only has ossified tendons on both dorsal and ventral sides of the caudals, but they are arranged in a parallel fashion rather than the more typical lattice work. This sounds much more like what one would expect to see in a dromaeosaur, not a heterodontosaurid. Especially since the eponymous Heterodontosaurus lacked ossified tendons. This would make this tendon arrangement both unique for heterodontosaurs, and unique for ornithopods.

    Incidentally, there is yet another crack that separates this section of the tail from that of the proximal (and apparently tendonless) portion of the tail. It doesn’t look like the crack goes all the way through the slab, but this can’t be verified from the photos. Nonetheless, this is yet another cause for skepticism.

    Another bit of strangeness is the presence of an apparent stain along most of the skeleton. It appears as a lighter, white colour, and is found within the body cavity, and along the back and tail. This might have been caused by the dissolving of the soft tissue. Whatever it is, this stain cuts off all the apparent filaments from the rest of the skeleton (save one small section that will be described later). In fact, there is one part where the stain appears to cut ? rather sharply ? right through the tail filaments. This cut is at an angle to the tail, thus not following the body contour at all. In fact, it almost looks like a deep gouge like that caused by a shovel, or (in this case) a trowel. Perhaps this was a casualty of the preparation/excavation.

    After looking the fossil pictures over, I have to say that Tianyulong more than any other “feathered dinosaur” before it, has the potential to be a chimera.

    Is the integument protofeathers/feathers?

    Well, the answer is an emphatic no to the latter. These are definitely not feathers.

    So then are they protofeathers?

    In the paper, Zheng et al mentioned that the filaments bear a similarity to both the “quills” on Psittacosaurus , and the protofeathers of Sinosauropteryx. Curious; I decided to compare the three.

    Comparison of the _Psittacosaurus_ "quills" (top), _Sinosauropteryx_ protofeathers (left) and _Tianyulong_ "filaments" (right)
    Comparison of the Psittacosaurus “quills” (top), Sinosauropteryx protofeathers (left) and Tianyulong “filaments” (right). Click the image to enlarge.

    Right off the bat, I’d say one can dismiss any real relationship to the protofeathers of Sinosauropteryx. The filaments on Tianyulong are similar only in the sense that they don’t branch at all. Short of that, the size, and density of Tianyulong‘s filaments are quite different from those of S.prima (being wider, longer and more loosely packed).

    When compared to the “quilled” Psittacosaurus, a much greater similarity can be seen as both filaments are rather long. The Psittacosaurus “quills” however, are quite a bit thicker, and seem to show up within the skin, while Tianyulong‘s filaments don’t touch the skeleton at all, save for the same spot where the strange (possible) groove is found.

    Some folks have stated that the large filaments are focused on the caudal portion of the body, just like in the “quilled” Psittacosaurus specimen. I would caution against this. Most of Tianyulong‘s body is not preserved. Unlike the Psittacosaurus specimen, where one could tell that these “quills” appeared only on the tail, there is very little evidence for the same arrangement in Tianyulong. I would extend this caution to statements about Tianyulong being completely fuzzy too. There are some filaments found by the dorsal vertebrae and under the cervicals. However, these filaments are much removed from the body. The dorsal patch does not follow the arch of the vertebrae; instead lying more anterior to the bones. As for the ventral patch, unless one wants to posit a double chin on Tianyulong, they also don’t actually associate with the bones, nor do they follow the body contour.

    The caudal filaments are strange in their own right. Like all the rest of these filaments they don’t follow the body contour (compare, for instance how the protofeathers of Sinosauropteryx follow the body rather tightly). In fact many of these filaments seem to be tangled amongst each other.

    Note there is yet another apparent break in the slab, between the filaments.

    If everything is arranged correctly, then these filaments seem to be tangling up with filaments that would have emerged much further up the back. Also unlike the singular “quills” on the Psittacosaurus, these thinner filaments all appear to protrude from the same narrow area. Instead of being more evenly spaced along the caudal vertebrae, they all bunch up by the proximal caudals. If these filaments did belong to the living animal, then it would appear that Tianyulong was brandishing a “smokestack haircut” long before Kid from Kid and Play ever did.

    Final verdict:

    Readers will no doubt have noted my extensive use of quotes around certain instances of protofeathers, as well as the mention of quills in the infamous Psittacosaurus specimen. I do so because of the questionable assignment of these filaments to those particular structures. In doing so, I am following in the steps of David Hone, who also suggested that one be cautious with one’s interpretation of some of these Yixian fossils (though my view is a little more extreme). Many of them have been described briefly, with little follow up work. The Psittacosaurus with the “quills” is a particularly nasty case. It received a quick right up in Nature, before it was discovered that the specimen was illegally collected. Now there is a veritable “shit storm” surrounding the fossil. This has resulted in it becoming a pariah that no journal dare touch. A result that has essentially put a halt to any further research for now. It’s unfortunate, as the identity of the Psittacosaurus filaments remains in limbo (not everyone is “happy” with the diagnoses of quills).

    As for Tianyulong, there appears to be a fair amount of evidence to suggest the animal might have died on a plant, or was possibly being devoured by nematode like parasites prior to death. As for being protofeathers, they appear as unlikely in Tianyulong, as they do in Psittacosaurus. The relationship to the protofeathers of Sinosauropteryx prima, appear to be at the most basal geometric level (i.e. they are both straight and unbranching).

    Still, what if everything is genuine? What kind of implications would that hold for dinosaurs?

    For my answer to that, stay tuned.


  • A critical evaluation of Tianyulong confiusci – part 1



    Apologies to all for the delay between blog posts. It seems I really should avoid putting deadlines on these things, as every time I do so, something in real life pops up to divert my attention.

    I have since had the chance to examine the Tianyulong confiusci paper thoroughly. My initial trepidations about the fossil remain. Tianyulong is a very important find…if what it preserves is real?

    As I sat to write this post up, I watched as the pages piled up. Because of the unexpected length of the post, I decided to break this evaluation into two, or three parts (likely three, but I’m covering my bases just in case). This first part has little to do with T.confiusci, and is mostly a primer for what’s to come. Tune in tomorrow for the meat of this post.

    The story thus far

    In the interim between blog posts, Time.com has published an article on the Tianyu museum in Pingyi China (home to T. confiusci). This natural history museum has quite possibly the largest collection of fossils in the world. Their dinosaur hall alone features some 480 fossils randomly on display. The issue is just how authentic they all are.

    From the article:

    Tianyu has purchased most of its fossil collection from individuals an illegal practice permitted by authorities only because it is technically a state-owned institution. More problematic, however, is that there is no way of knowing how many of those fossils are real. Chinese scientists say fake fossils are so pervasive in Chinese museums that using authenticity as the basis for judging a collection’s worth is unrealistic.

    This has been a rampant problem in China for some time now (~10 years at least). While here in the states, paleontologists have to worry about the locality in which a fossil bought at a shop, or auction, was collected (both for legal purposes, as well as scientific documentation); fossils in China also bear the burden of possibly being faked. Fossil poachers in China know what types of fossils are preferred (“feathered” dinosaurs in particular), and have gotten very good and making fakes. So good in fact, that a thorough vetting of any major find in China should really be done. Some authors have already started inventing techniques for doing just that (Rowe et al 2001, Mateus et al 2008).

    Sadly a thorough vetting process remains the exception, not the rule for Chinese fossils. Only two major dinosaur finds have been authenticity tested. The first was the seminal “feathered dinosaur”: Sinosauropteryx prima (Chen et al 1998). The second was NGMC-91; otherwise referred to as “Dave” (Ji et al 2001). This specimen is believed to be a member of another “feathered dinosaur:” Sinornithosaurus milleni.

    Technically there was one more specimen that has received authenticity testing, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

    Photo from National Geographic's 1999 mag.

    It really seemed that once Sinosauropteryx was found to be authentic, many of the other “feathered” finds were given a free ride. Within a year’s time four separate “feathered” dinosaurs were published in Nature. There was the therizinosaur Beipiaosaurus inexpectus (Xu et al 1999a), along with Caudipteryx zoui, Protarchaeopteryx robusta (Ji et al 1998) and the dromaeosaur Sinornithosaurus milleni(Xu et al 1999b). All were preserved with variations of what seemed like “feathers” (generally referred to as protofeathers now). None appeared to have been given an authenticity test, and were (for the most part) presumed to be the real thing. Protofeathers became something to be expected from Liaoning province. If someone posted a news article about a dinosaur fossil from the Yixian formation, it was practically a given that the animal would have protofeathers of some sort.

    Then, in November of 1999, National Geographic reported on the discovery of yet another “feathered dinosaur” coined: Archaeoraptor liaoningensis (Sloan 1999) The animal was found with the true feathered wings of a bird, along with a feathered dromaeosaurid legs and tail. Though informally published by National Geographic (who had jumped the gun on the story), it was nonetheless accepted by the paleo community.

    As the weeks passed, the validity of Archaeoraptor started to get called into question. The specimen itself consisted of numerous slabs that were glued together. This was suspicious, but not surprising given that the shale of the Yixian is weak. There were some mentions of it being a chimera (one leg was apparently longer than another), but regardless, it was generally believed to be the real deal (I even had a chance to ask one of the paleontologists working with it, Phil Currie, about it’s validity, and he felt it was genuine).

    Finally, after thorough examination, it was found that “Archaeoraptor liaoningensis” was indeed a fake. The animal was a chimera composed of a bird (front half), the feathered dromaeosaurid Microraptor gui, and a third, unnamed animal. Alas, despite the apologetic retraction from National Geographic, the damage was done. The Archaeoraptor hoax was well publicized around the internet. In particular, on the websites of creationists who toted it as the newest Piltdown man (the fact that both Piltdown and Archaeoraptor were found to be hoaxes through the use of science [Rowe et al 2001], seems to be a fact that is lost by creationists).

    Archaeoraptor stood as a cautionary example of why a thorough vetting process should be undertaken for important Chinese discoveries. Especially if they come from the remarkable shales of the Yixian formation.

    Now, 10 years later, the Yixian continues to pump out new and amazing finds. Unfortunately, it also continues to pump out numerous forgeries; many of which are very well done. Despite what happened with Archaeoraptor, there is still a distinctive lack of authenticity testing going on for these fossils. So there remains a good chance that some of these “feathery” finds are not what they appear to be.

    Which brings us to our “feathered” heterodontosaurid: Tianyulong confiusci.

    Tune in tomorrow for the analysis.


    Chen, P., Dong, Z.,Zhen, S. 1998. An Exceptionally Well-Preserved Theropod Dinosaur from the Yixian Formation of China. Nature. Vol. 391: 147-152.
    Ji, W., Currie, P.J., Ji, S., Norell, M.A. 1998. Two Feathered Dinosaurs from Northeastern China. Nature. Vol. 393: 753-761.Ji, Q., Norell, M.A., Gao, K. Ji, S., Ren, D. 2001. The Distribution of Integumentary Structures in a Feathered Dinosaur. Nature. Vol. 410:? 1084-1088.
    Mateus, O., Overbeeke, M. and Rita, F. 2008. Dinosaur Frauds, Hoaxes and “Frankensteins”: How to distinguish fake and genuine vertebrate fossils. Journal of Paleontological Techniques. Vol.2:1-5
    Rowe, T., Ketcham, R.A., Denison, C., Colbert, M., Xu, X., Currie, P.J. 2001, Forensic palaeontology: The Archaeoraptor Forgery. Nature. Vol. 410: 539-540. doi: 10.1038/35069145Sloan, C.P. 1999. Feathers for T.rex?. National Geographic. Vol. 196(5): 98-107.
    Xiao-Ting, Z., You, H., Xu, X., Dong, Z. 2009. An Early Cretaceous Heterodontosaurid Dinosaur with Filamentous Integumentary Structures. Nature. Vo.. 458: 333-336.
    Xu, X., Tang, Z. Wang, X. 1999a. A Therizinosauroid Dinosaur with Integumentary Structures from China. Nature. Vol. 399: 350-354.
    Xu, X., Wang, X., Wu, X. 1999b. A Dromaeosaurid Dinosaur with a Filamentous Integument from the Yixian Formation of China. Nature. Vol. 401: 262-266.