To Feather or Not to Feather Your Dinosaur, That is the Question.

Every time I turn a corner, there’s a new feathered dinosaur to join the line up of “enfluffened” critters.  T-rex, Velociraptor, Gallimimus…iconic dinosaurs from movies like Jurassic Park have bonified proof of some sort of floof covering their bodies.  Even the plant eaters are getting floofy with critters like Hypsolophodon and Kulindadromeous.


Don’t get me wrong, I love feathery dinosaurs, and I’m a pretty big fan of a huge, fluffy, grizzly-hawk T-rex (that’s just epic 😀 ).

But sometimes artists can take this idea a little too far.  “Woolly” Arctic ceratopsians (“three-horns” & cousins), and spike-tailed stegosaurus with porcupine quills is going a bit far on the speculation even for me.

There’s a fine line between reasonable speculation, and downright fantasy.

But let’s pause for just a moment.  I know that a lot of paleoart is speculative, a way of illustrating hypotheses proposed by paleontologists, but there’s also a surprising amount of stuff we do know.

What I mean to say is…

The stuff you see in paleoart is not some wild guess, and just because the critters are long dead doesn’t mean anything goes.  I’ve described the process of reconstructing prehistoric critters in my blog post series, Fleshing Out the Bones.  You can click this link to read more on that if you’re interested.

So how do you decide if you’ll give your dinosaur feathers or scales?

“Butterfly!”  Silly Alfred is just going to get worn out.  He’s about the size of the young Allosaurus described below.  About 12 feet long from nose to tail-tip.

Let’s take Allosaurus and my illustrations of Alfred as an example.  How do I know if he should be covered in feathers or scales?

Step 1: What’s the evidence?

Are there any fossils of skin impressions or feathers?  In Alfred’s case, yes, yes there is. 😀 I don’t know if there are any published papers on this, but here’s a link that describes the preserved skin on a juvenile Allosaurus.  It was discovered during preparation of the fossil.

Based on the fossil, the young Allosaurus had small scales about 2-3 mm in diameter.  So tiny, pebble-like, non-overlapping scales, rather like the sort you see on gila monsters and monitor lizards.

“Yo, ‘sup?”

But What if I didn’t Have Fossil Evidence?  And for some, a patch of skin in one part of the body is not enough.  Afterall, in some dinosaurs you get quite the mixture of feathers and scales.  Compsognathus, for example, has close relatives with evidence of “full floof”, but the critter itself has scale impressions on its tail and legs.

Step 2: Look at Their Relatives. 

Like we just did with Compsognathus up there, we can look at close relatives in the same family to figure out the scale/feather thing.  In the case of the compy, the possibilities can get even more confusing, but let’s go back to Alfred.

If you go back to last week’s post on Theropods, you’ll see that Allosaurus is in the family Carnosauria.  One rather infamous member of this group is Concavenator.  It has what looks like quill knobs on its arms, which in modern birds are small bumps on the bone where ligaments for flight feathers attach.

The “quill nobs” of Concavenator are a subject of much discussion.  Duane Nash has a particularly interesting interpretation over at his blog, Antediluvian Salad.  I’m not a fan of how monstrous he illustrated the poor critter, since I tend to see the beauty even in Earth’s homeliest of creatures, but the article is a very interesting read, and I’d recommend you check it out. 🙂

Step 3: Where is it in the Family Tree?

Pterosaurs are about as closely related to dinosaurs as alligators and crocodiles are.  Neither are dinosaurs, but they’re all in a much larger group called Archosauria.

Because of this relationship, it’s a pretty big deal if the fuzzy pycnofibers on pterosaurs are the same as the fur-like fluff on certain dinosaurs (like Compsognathus & cousins).

Why?  Because it’s much simpler to assume that the great-grandmother of dinosaurs & pterosaurs had the fuzzy feathery fluff.

Much more complicated to assume that dinosaurs & pterosaurs developed the same fuzzy feathery fluff each on their own.

What’s easier?  Learning with a friend from a teacher, or each of you studying on your own?  Not exactly the same, I know, but I think you get my drift. 🙂

With this in mind, let’s see where Alfred is on the family tree, and how far away he is from the main branch or outlying branches.

Image not my own. Cladogram copyright to Tom Holtz. Sourced from the University of Maryland Department of Geology website.

Alfred is on the branch labeled Carnosauria.  This is quite a ways away from the base of the branch, with many critters in between that are known to be scaly.  So feathers from that direction are very unlikely.

Once proof of scales appears we don’t see any real evidence of feathers until we get to the branch labeled Coelurosauria.

Final Verdict: Allosaurus is More Likely to Have Scales, Based on Current Knowledge.

So what would that look like?  The scales are small and non-overlapping in our sample, so let’s look at Komodo Dragons and Monitor lizards. 😀

“Nothin’ better than a warm rock on a sunny day…Zzzz” – Komodo Dragon
“Hey.  Nice day ain’ it?” – Komodo Dragon.
“Hi! You wouldn’t have a snack handy would’ya?” – Monitor Lizard

Bonus Question: With this research, I think Alfred could use a bit of a makeover!  What would you prefer to see?

  • A much needed nap after chasing that butterfly
  • Curious Alfred is curious
  • Is that the dinner bell?
  • Playtime!

Which scenario should I use to revamp his profile picture?  I’d love to hear your answer in the comments! 🙂

Critter of the Week: Allosaurus

Meet Alfred.  The lion of the Jurassic!  The prince of the Mesozoic! The…oh, there he goes after another butterfly.  All he needs to be happy in life is his food, his chew toy, and a nice long nap.



Looks like Alfred has found something to chase.  No worries though, that butterfly has nothing to fear, and he’ll give up soon enough.  Allosaurus (ah-low-saw-rus) wasn’t very fast, but he can’t help it- if it runs off, he’s got to chase it!  After a quick sprint, Alfred loves to settle under the shade of a tree and take a nice nap.

What’s that you say?  He’s a fearsome predator?  Well yes, yes he is.  Take a quick look at lions, and tigers, and bears (oh my!), and most of the time you’ll actually catch them napping.  Crocodiles and eagles, Alfred’s closest living relatives, also do a lot of nothing.  Once you have a full belly, why not enjoy a siesta in the sun?  🙂

You can find out more about Alfred at his critter page.

Fun Fact: This guy is the first critter that I kinda found my style.  All the ones I drew before him were very inconsistent, but this one had the sketchiness and detailed painterly mixture I was looking for.  All other critters after him I’ve been refining my technique and getting better.

Now I have to practice on my people!


Making progress…

I had a big surprise planned.  The goal was to have Pete’s Postcards from the Shop all set up by my birthday (that’s today.  I just set it as a convenient goal date. 🙂 )

The Critter Cards were done, I got the PDF file sorted out, Mailchimp all set up and ready to go…I run through the motions to test it out for myself and…


I wasn’t really surprised, since I can’t really use my personal email account to send you emails from the Paleo Petshop.  But it was worth a try.  I’m trying to spend as little money as possible until I start earning a little.  This can turn into a really expensive hobby really fast if I’m not careful.

Not exactly what I’m going for. 🙂

So now I’m figuring out the best place to purchase a domain name, so that can turn into  Only problem is that so many places offer so many different packages with bells and whistles I’m not ready for just yet.  Like webhosting.

All I need is an official domain name, and the email address I can use with Mailchimp.

Wish me luck!  I’ve got a couple of options I’m looking at, but it’s just a matter of figuring out which one’s a better fit. 🙂

In the meantime, here’s the Critter Card chart with all dinosaurs colored in. 😀



Coming Next Week…

A giant with a heart of gold, life is never boring when this big guy is around.  Nothing is out of reach!  He’ll stick his nose into everything until every mystery is solved.

Share your guess in the comments! He’ll be one of the critters over on the critter page. 🙂

Who Were the Theropod Dinosaurs?

Dinosaurs are such a diverse group of animals that it can be a challenge to sort out who’s who.  Theropoda, sauropodomorpha, ornischia…just what does it all mean?  For now let’s talk about the group everyone knows and loves (but might not know it), the theropods.


For your convenience and entertainment, here are a couple of helpful Youtube videos I found.  These two clips are part of a much longer course about dinosaurs, taught by paleontologist Benjamin Burger.  Enjoy! 🙂


Who Were the Theropod Dinosaurs?


How Do We Group the Theropod Dinosaurs?

Warning: This one is much longer, about 30 minutes, so grab your popcorn (theropods are a ginormous group 🙂 ). If you don’t have time (because we’re all busy these days), then just scroll down for the Cliffnotes version.


Here’s the Cliffnotes version.  Start from the bottom of each picture and work your way to the top.



Fun Fact: the three earliest groups here- Tawa, Coelophysidae,& Dilophosaurus, are proposed to have some sort of fur-like feathers because they are so young in the family tree.  Then you don’t see very many feathers at all until Coelurosauria at the top there.  Notice how we have critters like Ceratosaurus & Allosaurus here.

Since a number of critters in the middle groups have scaly skin impressions, it’s more likely that these groups were generally scaly, with limited (if any) feathering.  There are one or two exceptions, but for the most part there are only bones and a few scaly skin impressions.



Coelurosauria, anything defined as more closely related to birds than Allosaurus.  Pretty much everything in this group is more likely to have some sort of feathered integument.  Anything from quills, hairlike filaments, or full blown assymetrical flight feathers and “peacock tails”.  Yes, even T-rex, those tiny Compsognathus, and Velociraptor. 🙂




Eumaniraptora- if you saw these walking around, your first thoughts would be “bird” or “very strange bird”.  Yes, Jurassic Park franchise, your “velociraptors” are supposed to be very, very birdy.  We also get Archaeopteryx here, right at the base of the branch with “true birds” on it.  Troodontidae are often considered a sister clade to birds.  Think birds with longer tails, and teeth, and you’ve got a troodon.  Possibly a bit like an owl, since they’re nocturnal, and have asymmetrical ears like owls do.

These cladograms can all be found at the University of Maryland Department of Geology website, and here’s where you can see the online lecture describing these cladograms in more detail. These cladograms are all copyright to Tom Holtz.


Bonus Question: Do you see any of your favorites here?  What’s your take on the “enfluffening” of dinosaurs?  I’d love to hear your answer in the comments!  

PS.- I know the idea of feathered T-rex is quite the hot point for some people, but if that’s you, please remember to be kind.

I’d like to avoid the ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS PLEASE!!!!!1! Nobody likes to be yelled at.

Thank you for understanding. 🙂

Critter of the Week: Archaeopteryx

Meet Tango. This bird likes to party, and loves being the center of attention even more!


Tango is a pretty good example of when you should check with your neighbors before you choose your pet.  Of course, if you live out in the sticks like I do, then it doesn’t matter so long as you don’t mind going deaf.

Ok, ok, I exaggerate.  But really, unless you like a whole lot of this going on, I’d reconsider a quieter critter.


Making progress…

I’ve got profile pictures for all the critters on the critter page!  (I’m super super excited, because that’s the most obvious sign of my progress so far XD )

Speaking of profile pics, notice how Tango got a shiny updated one? (hint hint, nod nod)

Now I’m starting on their official character pages.  You can go to the critter page and click on Tango (or if you’re lazy, just click here 😛 )  It’s pretty basic, and not very shiny yet, but hey, it’s a start. 🙂

I also got Tango’s card done.  One more dinosaur to complete the series, and I’ll open up the official sign up for Postcards From the Shop!



Coming Next Week…

This guy will chase after anything that moves, or smells good… 😉

Share your guess in the comments! He’s one of the critters over on the critter page. 🙂

The Art & Science of Tango

Tango is excited to see you!  Say hello Tango (Weeooh! Chip-chip!).  He gets pretty excited when he meets new people, so we’ll see if he’ll let us talk for a little while. (weep-weep!)





A rude (but necessary) disclaimer interrupts this post to say…

I do the best I can with research, but I’m a stay-at-home mom who’s always had a passion for all things prehistoric.  I’m not a paleontologist, and I don’t have access to all the scientific papers available.  But I try my best to keep up to date, and all my illustrations reflect this.

That said, all the drawings in the A&S post series are quick doodles to illustrate a point, with not as much reference as I usually use, so there are plenty of inaccuracies for you to point out for me. 😉

Thank you disclaimer, you can go bother someone else now.

Oh, and one more thing, before you start seeing the name Archaeopteryx everywhere (and trying to pronounce it in your head), here’s a quick pronunciation guide.  I wasn’t sure myself, so I thought I’d share it!


1. Ok, So What is He Really?


You probably recognize Tango from just about every book on dinosaurs out there.  They tend to announce him as the “first bird” a lot, and 8-year-old me would think, “then what’s a bird doing in a dinosaur book?”

So what is he, a dinosaur or a bird?

Well if you read last week’s post on birds, then of course you might say he’s a dinosaur, since all birds are dinosaurs anyway.  But we’re being more specific this time. 🙂

So let’s get into something called cladistics.

To put it simply (partly for my own benefit because I’ve just started getting my hands dirty with this stuff)…

cladistics is how scientists determine where an animal goes on the family tree, and how we explore animal’s relationships with each other.  Animals in any particular group are determined to have shared traits and characteristics, and must therefore have a common ancestor.  

For example.  All cats, wild and domestic, have a number of traits that are the same, so then they must have a single common ancestor that gave them all those traits.  Very much how your great grandmother passed down her characteristics to her daughter, grand daughter, and great-granddaughter. 🙂

I’ll start off with a group of dinosaurs called Theropods.  They’re the ones we typically think of as walking on two legs, and generally meat-eaters, like T-rex. 🙂


Nestled inside the Theropod box are many groups.  You can think of them as smaller boxes inside the big box.  The box that we’re taking out of the Theropod box will be a group called Coelurosaurs (seel-ooh-row-saurs).

Most of the critters in this group are possibly feathered, and include the “ostrich dinos”, “velociraptors”, T-rex, and mostly all the animals we would think are birds at first glance.


Inside the Coelurosaur box are other boxes, including the one with T-rex inside it.  But as much as I like T-rex, we’ll be ignoring his box for now and looking at a box labeled “Maniraptora”.

This box has animals that are more obviously bird-like.  If we were to see them in life (vs. the Jurassic Park version) we would think “bird” or “very strange bird”.  Very strange (and giant) when it comes to Therizinosaurus, but that’s a subject for another day. 🙂


Inside the Maniraptora box there are more boxes.  These boxes get reorganized about twice a year, because now things start getting a little difficult when it comes to separating true birds from non-avian dinosaurs.

We’ll find Archaeopteryx in a box labeled Avialae.

This box includes all modern birds and their direct grandparents and great-great-grandparents.  It also includes the toothy birds, and sometimes Troodontids (think mini raptors, but even more “birdy” and kinda like owls).


Whew!  Thank you for sticking with me for all that. 🙂

The final verdict according to the family tree…

Archaeopteryx is a bird. 😀

And yes, it’s a dinosaur too, because birds fit in the “Dinosaur” box.


2. But is He the First?


Tango’s gotten a lot of press over the years as the “first bird”, but is he really the first?  It depends on if there was another dinosaur as closely related to modern birds as possible, but earlier in the timeline.

And it turns out there’s another one that’s earlier in the timeline…

Aurornis xui is a bird from Jurassic China, in sediments that are older than the rocks Archaeopteryx are typically found in Europe.  Pascal Godefroit et al. write in their paper on Aurornis that their studies determined it as the…

  • Earliest bird
  • It confirms that Archaeopteryx was indeed a bird

‘Nuff said. 🙂

3. Can He Fly?

Flying, or falling with style?

Most of us may look at Tango and see a birdy critter with big wings- of course he can fly!  But wait, not so fast.  Flight, as you know, is a very difficult skill to master, and just because an animal has wings doesn’t really mean it has all the other things it needs to fly.

So poor Tango’s been in the middle of an argument.

Can he fly, or is he stuck clambering up into the branches to jump off and glide?  Here’s why many paleontologists believe he can fly…

  • A few amazing specimens have a wishbone (check out pictures of almost all 11 here!)
  • The wing feathers are asymmetrical, just like modern birds.  This gives the wings a more aerodynamic shape, which is useful for flying.


Tango’s muscles are a bit weak, and his tail is not the best for flying, but in nature, whatever you’ve got is good enough to thrive where you’re at.  Tango may’ve been just good enough a flyer to get across the river, from one branch to the next.  Landings were probably not his strong point.

I’d be really curious to see what paleontologists would find if they compared Archaeopteryx flight muscles with those of a hoatzin. 🙂

Photo Courtesy of Kate from UK – HoatzinUploaded by FunkMonk, CC BY-SA 2.0,


That’s all for now folks!  Say goodbye Tango…:D



Quick Question: Do you remember your first “encounter” with Archaeopteryx?  How has the media, books, and maybe your own research affected your thoughts of birds as living dinosaurs?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

P.S.- You can always hop over the the A&S page to pick out who you want to see next! 🙂

Critter of the Week: Ceratosaurus

Meet Bowser. Those horns may look intimidating, and his toothy grin can be downright fearsome.  But you know what they say about books and their covers… 😉





Bowser is the pit bull of Jurassic predators.  He’s buff, he’s tough, and he’ll stop at nothing to protect his special person.

He also has an unfortunate reputation.

Pit bulls are only as bad as their owners.  Give them a good home and training- you’ll have a loyal friend that is sweet and adoring.

Bowser is very much the same.

Pete has trained this big guy ever since he was a hatchling, and he never shows his teeth except when chomping down on a meal.

Personally, I’m kinda glad he usually keeps his mouth shut, because take a look at those chompers!

The teeth on this mount may be extra long, because teeth tend to slip out of the socket when there’s no soft tissue to hold them in, but they’re still super long!  This is a younger individual, so the horns aren’t as big as Bowser’s.  Photo courtesy and copyright of Dr. John Meck.  Obtained from



Making progress…


Yay!  Two more trading cards complete. 😀

I’m really liking the idea of printable character cards.




Coming Next Week…

This bird knows how to party. 😉

Share your guess in the comments! He’s one of the critters over on the critter page. 🙂

What is a Bird?

If I asked you, “What is a bird?” What would you say?  For most of us (at least for me) the first things that come to mind are feathers, a beak, and usually flight.  Oh yes, and lays eggs.  If you look out your window, go on a hike, or visit the zoo, it’s easy to recognize birds for what they are.


But what if we went back in time a few million years?  It may be harder to pick out the bird from the…not bird, than you think.

Let’s say you’re picking your way through the thick undergrowth of a pine grove.  You hear twittering from a branch above you, and you look up to see the tiny singer.  It looks like a bird, it acts like a bird, but when it opens its beak to sing you notice tiny teeth.

Is it a bird?

Let’s try another one.  Another place, another time.

You look up when you hear the sound of flapping wings above you.  At first glance it looks like a bird, but then you notice those long tail feathers are not just feathers.  Instead of a long train like a parrot or peacock, this fan is supported by a long tail.  A closer look and you notice that this bird has claws on its wings, and a beakless snout with tiny teeth.

Is it a bird?

Let’s take a look at one more.

In another place, another time, we peak through the branches to look out into a clearing.  Pecking at the undergrowth is something that looks a bit like an ostrich, or maybe an emu.  Shaggy feathers, a toothless beak, and feather-duster wings all look like a big, flightless bird.  But no bird has a long tail like that.  That tail looks like it belongs on a lizard, if only it wasn’t covered in feathers.

Is it a bird?

At first glance, all three look very much like birds.

  • The first is an early bird called Sulcavis, which lived around the same time as T-rex, in China.
  • The second is Archaeopteryx.  More dinosaur than bird, and from a much earlier time in Germany.  It’s often reported as the first bird, but there are earlier cousins that are more bird than dinosaur.
  • The third is Gallimimus.  If you’ve ever seen the original Jurassic park, these are the featherless “ostrich dinosaurs” that stampede around the heroes.  Fossils now tell us that these dinosaurs would look very much like emus and ostriches with tails. 🙂

So how do we know which is which?  We can’t define it based on feathers, eggs, or flight.  In fact, paleontologists argue quite a bit on exactly what makes something a bird or a dinosaur.

The best answer I have on this insanely complicated subject (because let’s face it, I’m no expert.  I’m just a couch enthusiast 😛 )…

All birds, past and present, are dinosaurs.  But not all dinosaurs are birds. 😉

Even this handsome guy.  I love the thought of dinosaurs running around my yard and giving me eggs.


Who?  Me?

If you want to find out more, here’s a pretty neat article going into much more detail on the whole dinosaur/bird/feather thing.  


Quick Question:  What do you think about the relationship of birds and dinosaurs?  The discovery of more and more dinosaurs with feathers has turned into a rather hot topic, with passionate feelings on both sides.

Me? I think our entire natural world (and our place in it) is amazing beyond words, so I’m cool with anything the latest research has to dish out. Birds jumping on the dinosaur wagon just adds a whole new dimension of awesome. 😀

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments! 🙂

Critter of the Week: Rhamphorynchus

Meet Ron. He’s the flying ace.  He’ll swoop from the sky, dive into the water, and swim anywhere for a shiny fish. 🙂


Rrr- just how do you pronounce that?  I wasn’t 100% sure on that myself, so I looked it up on Youtube…

There, mystery solved. 🙂  I wonder if there’s one for all the really hard paleo-critter names out there.  I may have to include something like this from now on until I figure out a better system.

Oh, and before you ask, yes, there is evidence that pterosaurs can swim. 🙂 Ron here seems to spend most of his time in water, which might be why we have so many perfect fossils of this little guy. 🙂

He’s fast though.  It took a whole bucket of fish to entice him to come over for a quick chat.

And there he goes!  Ah well, if you want to know more about these guys, I know a pretty awesome blog post written by the great pterosaur expert, Mark Witton.  It has lots of pretty pictures too!


Making progress…

The big reveal for what I’ve been working on lately (aside from the book of course)…drumroll please…


Little character trading cards!

I’ll be making sets of six.  Dinosaurs first, then a set of other prehistoric critters.  I’d love to have a fancy set made at some point, but this way I can make them available for free.

Yes!  Free printables!  I’ve got to admit, I must say I’m quite pleased with the two I’ve made so far. 😀

To add to the fun, here’s a chart of the (currently) planned critters.  I’ll color them in as I complete each card. 🙂



Coming Next Week…

He looks tough, but once you get to know him he’s loyal to the core…and more of a softie really. 🙂

Share your guess in the comments! He’s one of the critters over on the critter page. 🙂


Does it Fly?

When you think of an animal with wings, you usually think of something that can fly right?  Bird is one of the first things that pops in my head, and when most of us think of birds, we usually think of birds that fly.


But not all birds fly.  Of course, out of all the birds that can’t fly, what’s the first thing that comes to mind.  Penguin?  Ostrich?  Kiwi?

“I believe I can flyyyy!”

Then there’s another category (wait, there’s more?).

Those are the birds that don’t usually fly, the sort of bird that we’re always a bit surprised to hear can actually fly.

Like turkeys. 🙂

Or peacocks.

Glorious peacock in full formal attire looks down from his high tower and scoffs at human ignorance.  He, not able to fly?  Preposterous.

So how does this apply to prehistoric critters?  Well, there are times when paleontologists aren’t so sure if a bird or other feathered dinosaur could fly.  And then there are the times when paleontologists are so sure something could not fly, but then later on down the road new evidence shows up that it might

So how can you tell for sure?

This is where the guessing game gets fun.  We take a look at all the evidence we have, look at modern animals to get more insight on certain relevant details, and then propose our best hypothesis.

Next week, we’ll take a look at one of these discombobulating critters.  Until then, enjoy the adorkable awkwardness of a hoatzin clambering about (a lovely bird of the South American Amazon).  Landings don’t look like their strong point. 😛



Quick Question: What’s the first bird you think of when I say “bird”?  I’ve got kiwis and penguins on the brain since I’ve written this post, but I do love the little songbirds that sing around our yard.  I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Oh, and if you’re seeing this in your inbox (and like what you see), please click on the post’s title.  That would mean a lot to me, and help others find the site more easily.  Thank you! 🙂