In 2008, a fossil hunter named Frank Hadfield went for a walk among the hoodoos of Drumheller, Alberta. Up on one of these chunky sandstone minarets studding the southern Albertan badlands, Hadfield spied what appeared to be the remains of a small carnivorous dinosaur. He made a few calls and soon his colleague Francois Therrien, a paleontologist at the nearby Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, to come have a look…
While they were working on the outcropping, a chunk of it split off the main block. Examining it, Therrien saw it was laced with black streaks. The streaks looked familiar. Like all modern paleontologists, Therrien was acquainted with the spectacular feathered-dinosaur fossils of the Liaoning beds in China, where the idea that dinosaurs are the ancestors of birds got its biggest boost, thanks to the preservation of feathers–both the thread-like ones known as “dinofuzz” and the more familiar shafted kind–in the silky mud of an ancient lake bottom. “If we were in China,” he cracked, “we’d call those feathers.”
Interest piqued, the scientists changed the way they’d usually prepare the fossil, cleaning it to the level of its skin, rather than down to the bone, to see whether more of the curious features could be found. The work was not in vain. The 2008 specimen, along with another found in 2009, have just been announced in this week’s issue of Science as the first feathered dinosaurs to be found in the Americas. The finds may suggest new places to look for feathered dinosaurs, since these were found in stone previously thought to be too coarse for the preservation of feathers. And they may also, along with a newly re-examined specimen found in 1995, provide insight into what role feathers played for animals that did not use them for flight…
The search for more feathery fossils has already begun. “I’ve been out this summer looking for more, and the museum is probably looking as well. I’m sure lots of people will be looking once this paper comes out,” Zelenitsky says. “And I think people will start looking through their collections, and start preparing fossils that haven’t been prepared.”
At least now we know that you can find feathered dinosaurs anywhere, Therrien says. And he emphasizes that people will have to be careful: “If it hadn’t been for that lucky break, I’m convinced that we would have never found those feathers. We would have just prepared through them.” In this case, preparing through them would have meant losing them–and losing a discovery too.
Another unintended consequence – though motivated by curiosity about what might be found by varying the technique.