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Where the evidence leads

Science | Fossils show dinosaurs had more spine

Issue: "The 2007 Books Issue," June 30, 2007

In recent decades, a dominant portion of paleontologists have taught that birds evolved from dinosaurs. The popular theory of bird origins has been bolstered by fossils showing filamentous patterns interpreted to be "protofeathers," or evolutionary precursors to modern feathers. But a controversial new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B challenges this view.

The hubbub centers on a theropod called Sinosauropteryx, a turkey-sized dinosaur related to Tyrannosaurus rex. First discovered in 1994, Sinosauropteryx was hailed as an ancestor to birds after it was observed to sport a mane of fibrous structures along its spine-rudimentary feathers intended to keep the animal warm, as the theory went. But Alan Feduccia, a University of North Carolina professor and co-author of the Proceedings B paper, argues that a microscopic examination of the alleged "protofeather" fibers shows otherwise.

"We found what I would consider to be definitive evidence-based on the structure of these fibers and their position and so forth-to show that they are in fact degraded skin collagen fibers," Feduccia told WORLD. "[They] have nothing to do with feathers or protofeathers."

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Feduccia and his colleagues believe the collagen, a connective protein found in bone, once supported a frill along the dinosaur's back and tail. They say their discovery challenges the idea that dinosaurs evolved into modern birds.

Other scientists disagree, claiming the link between dinosaurs and birds has already been firmly established. And some dispute the Sinosauropteryx study itself: "It is appalling that Proceedings B chose to publish this nonsense," Kevin Padian, curator at the University of California's Museum of Paleontology, told National Geographic News.

But Feduccia is sticking by his guns. "There are too many problems with the current dogma of the dinosaurian origin of birds," he said. "I'm willing to go wherever the evidence leads us."

Missing the rain for the trees: Global-warming models fail to account for moisture

Computer models that predict climate changes due to global warming are flawed, according to a study published in the journal Science. The study examined two decades' worth of satellite climate data and found that actual rain and snow precipitation was much higher than current models predict. In fact, precipitation increased with temperature at a rate three times higher than expected. Most global warming models forecast a much slower rise in precipitation that would mean drought for many already dry areas of the globe.

The study determined that while many models accurately predict temperature rise, they fail to show long-term changes in moisture levels, or the effects of weather patterns like El Niño.

This summer an internationally supported experiment will study the persisting mysteries of rain cloud formation around Germany's Black Forest-an area where rainfall is often forecast incorrectly.

-Daniel James Devine is a writer in Indiana and editor of GlobeLens.com

Not magic, it's 'WiTricity'

Wireless electricity technology is catching

A research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has successfully illuminated an unplugged light bulb from 7 feet away. It's not magic, it's "WiTricity"-a short name for the wireless electricity technology the team hopes will eventually be used to power devices like laptops and MP3 players. Incorporating two antenna-like coils of wire, one hooked to a power source and another attached to an appliance (in this case a 60-watt bulb), the technology uses low-frequency electromagnetic waves to create "magnetic resonance" between the coils. The resulting transmission is strong and efficient, even when obstructed, and should be harmless to people.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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