|Reworked version of my 2012 Tyrannosaurus painting, now in it's third guise. There's something about this painting which recalls reconstructions from 1906 rather than those of 2016.|
In the recent months two papers have challenged this idea. The first, by Thomas Carr and colleagues (2017), purports to find osteological correlates of scales on the facial anatomy of the tyrannosaurid Daspleteosaurus, which they argue (along with other lines of evidence), to suggest crocodylian-like facial tissues and sensitivity. The second, by Phil Bell et al. (2017), describes scaly skin impressions from multiple postcranial regions of a Tyrannosaurus skeleton, and argues that the distribution of these impressions implies a uniform (or near uniform) covering of scales across the body, without much in the way of fuzz.
Because this is Tyrannosaurus, media sites and bloggers have spilled great amounts of ink over these stories. The scientific press has often been far from objective or unbiased. Popular articles have suggested Jurassic World fans might have 'won' the debate over scientists, that science fans are 'due' a return to scaly tyrants after 'losing' Pluto, and that the findings mean 'all is well in the dinosaur world'. The implication is a ridiculous one, like evidence of scalier tyrants is a moral victory rather than a test of a scientific hypothesis. But while the popular press has been celebrating the new papers, members of the palaeoblogosphere have been less enamoured with the findings. Trey the Explainer suggests that Bell et al.'s work doesn't really change what we already knew about tyrant integument, and thus does not invalidate many existing reconstructions. Andrea Cau posits that interpretations of scaly tyrants reflect our prejudices more than science, and that taphonomic factors may explain the absence of filaments. Brian Switek has concerns that the skin patches are too small and spread too widely to give a complete picture of the integument, and echoes concerns about taphonomic interference. The collective response seems to be a defensive one, protecting concepts of filamented tyrannosaurids from a resurgence of a more traditional, scaly model. Would any other dinosaur get this treatment? Perhaps not: as Brian explains in his recent post, this reaction is the T. rex celebrity effect at full bore.
|Supermegafluffy Tyrannosaurus, from 2015. They were simpler times.|
What, exactly, has been argued about scaly tyrants?A lot of the popular write ups of these recent papers include errors and misrepresentation, so let's recap what is actually being argued about Tyrannosaurus skin. A common social media reaction to Bell et al.'s work is that they've presented 'a patch' of skin, and are extrapolating from that. We need to debunk that right away: they've not described a single patch, but multiple small patches from the neck (alas, exactly where on the neck isn't reported), the top of the pelvis, and the base of the tail (below). All the samples stem from the 'Wyrex' specimen (HMNS 2006.1743.01). The most extensively represented area is the tail base, which has the largest single piece of fossil skin - 30 cm². The other skin samples are not as large, some being just a few centimetres across. Each patch shows the same skin type: uniform, tiny 'basement scales', each less than 1 mm across (Take note, artists: you would not see Tyrannosaurus scales until you were being eaten by their owner). Similar scale patches, also described by Bell et al. (2017), have been found on the torso and tail regions of other tyrannosaurid species, implying similarly scaled regions in these taxa.
Some folks are suggesting that the size of these skin patches allows us to dismiss their scaly signal, or that even that they're anomalous, reflecting unusual taphonomic conditions that cloud their significance. I'm unsure about these ideas. Most skin impressions are small patches (even scaly skin gets a rough ride during fossilisation) and the fact they're small doesn't diminish the fact that each records a cluster of scales. We have to assume these are not unusual or 'special' areas on the body but generally indicative of surrounding skin fabrics. The fact that each patch is consistent with regard to scale size and texture hints at them being part of a continuous, unbroken integument, and not isolated scaly pockets in a sea of fluff.
But what about arguments that the scale patches are tissues stripped of filaments before preservation, like so many 'monster' carcasses? Filament/scale combos do have precedent in dinosaurs, being present on the tail of Juravenator and those scales of Kulindadromeus with fibre-like tassels (Chiappe and Göhlich 2010; Godefroit et al. 2014). We know from modern animals that fibrous epidermal structures are especially vulnerable to decay and physical weathering, but is there evidence that this has taken place on the Wyrex Tyannosaurus skin patches? At present, it's hard to say because we have no idea what tyrannosaur skin looks like as it decays. It might be significant, however, that the scale patches look very similar across the Wyrex specimen, and that they resemble other tyrannosaurid skin impressions closely. We might expect some variation if taphonomy was really distorting these specimens in a major way, and we're not seeing that. Moreover, the Wyrex skin impressions, though small, are pretty high-resolution. The scales, and their intervening areas, have sub-millimetre proportions and sharply defined edges. There's no tatty scale margins, no obvious spaces for filament attachment, or linear structures crossing the scales to imply a rogue filament impression. We'll remain uncertain if these are anomalous, taphonomically-altered samples until we find other examples of tyrannosaurid skin, but there's no reason to be unduly suspicious of the the samples we have.
Of course, the adage that 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence' is always important when dealing with the fossil record, and it applies here as a sensible caveat. However, we shouldn't wield this phrase as a definitive counter-argument to reasonable interpretations of available evidence. Palaeontologists have to work with data, not suspicions or gut feelings, and the data we have does not include, or hint at, the presence of filaments. I'm not arguing that taphonomy isn't worthy of consideration here (indeed, the omission of details about 'Wyrex' taphonomic history is an issue with the Bell et al. 2017 paper) but we must beware the logical fallacies of appealing to probability (i.e. taphonomy could explain the lack of filaments, so it does explain the lack of filaments) or special pleading (excluding Tyrannosaurus from the same logic we would apply to other fossil animals when presented with this data).
|Tyrannosaurus skull AMNH 5027 - note the 'hummocky' textures on the side of the snout, above and below the orbit, and atop the rostrum, likely indications of scaly skin. Image in public domain, sourced from Wikipedia.|
|Everyone's doing maps of Tyrannosaurus with integument details nowadays, and I want in. Note that this is Tyrannosaurus specific, and does not feature scale data from other tryannosaurids.|
What's in the gaps?The million dollar question is what was present between these scaly regions: more scales, or fibres? This is a major point for many respondents to the Carr et al. and Bell et al. papers, as it decides whether we keep our interpretation of Tyrannosaurus as an - at least partly - fuzzy animal. With our scale distribution map as a starting point, several options are available. The first is that fuzz was present in regions not yet represented by skin remains or osteological correlates. This would mostly imply the top of the torso (Bell et al. 2017), but may also be parts of the back of the head, some aspects of the neck (depending on where the neck skin impression came from) and maybe the end of the tail. Over on Twitter, Patrick Murphy has presented a reconstruction which shows what this might look like. I must admit to finding it quite amusing, sort of like T. rex has put on a shawl to visit the opera.
But how dense could these fuzzy patches have been? Bell et al. (2017) suggest that dense fibrous coverings are doubtful, noting that large living mammals avoid patches of thick insulating fibres to aid heat loss. This has not gone down well with some critics, who cite studies of feathers preventing over-heating instead of facilitating it. An oft-cited study in this regard is Dawson and Maloney (2004), who found emu feathers block virtually all solar radiation from the skin, preventing them from overheating in solar exposure that causes similarly-sized hairy mammals to seek shelter.
|Feathers: great at blocking solar radiation, also great at trapping body heat. Note how cooking hot these ostriches are on their necks, heads and legs, while the feathers are mostly ambient temperature. This isn't because the body isn't warm, but because the feathers block the heat signature entirely, trapping all that heat around the body. As surface area:volume ratios drop as animals get larger, it stands to reason that the benefits of blocking solar radiation give way to a need shed heat. Image from Wikipedia user Arno / Coen, CC BY-SA 3.0.|
If living birds find feathers a little warm, despite their relatively high surface area to volume ratios, we have to assume a theropod weighing anywhere between 6-14 tonnes is going to find big areas of dense filaments a challenge to thermoregulation too. It is not unreasonable to assume blankets of fibres could be a problem for big tyrants. The counterargument here is that Yutyrannus huali, a largish tyrannosauroid, does have dense fibres everywhere. But Yutyrannnus seems more lithe than Tyrannosaurus - perhaps just 10-25% of its mass, depending on the estimates (Bell et al. 2017) - and lived in a more vegetated, and thus shadier, habitat (Bell et al. 2017). A neat comparison Bell et al. (2017) make along this line uses living rhinos, where hairier species live in shadier settings than the virtually naked ones. In light of this, the reduction of filamented regions, and perhaps lessening their density, is a reasonable inference for animals of the size and habitat of Tyrannosaurus, and would reflect thermoregulatory responses to scaling and shade availability seen in living animals.
|Large tyrannosauroids, like Yutyrannus huali, show that dinosaurs weighing perhaps 1.5 tonnes could be covered in feathers. But does this reflect the fact that this animal lived in shadier, vegetated habitats than the tyrannosaurids? This idea isn't silly: adaptation to specific circumstances has a major role to play in shaping animal skin anatomy, and could well explain why some tyrants are fuzzy, and others seem less so. (If you want to see the rest of this picture, check out this Patreon post)|
|Scaly, minimally-filamented Tyrannosaurus. There's some tufts on the neck, but that's it. Is this model more consistent with the thermoregulatory requirements of a 6-14 tonne animal?|
Beyond Tyrannosaurus: 'unlocking' dinosaur skin constraintsMy take-home from these new papers is that our models of Tyrannosaurus skin have not crystallised, but we're a little more constrained in how we can imagine this animal, and have to concede a scalier appearance than many of us thought likely. But the implications of the Bell et al. study go beyond Tyrannosaurus in implying new ways to think about dinosaur skin evolution. With incontrovertibly fuzzy animals lining much of the the tyrannosauroid tree and its root, our scalier Tyrannosaurus gives us one of the best examples of a dinosaur replacing fuzz with scales. This is a far-reaching conclusion for those of us interested in dinosaur life appearance, complicating the already confusing evolutionary pattern of scale and fuzz distribution within the group. Ideas that some dinosaurs could be 'secondarily scaled' are supported by this discovery, and we have to wonder if classically fuzzy lineages - including many other theropod lines - are as tightly locked into fuzz, fibres and feathers as we once thought. Could large dromaeosaurs be a little lighter on fuzz than we imagine? Did Therizinosaurus look less like a giant pigeon and more like a walking Christmas dinner? We don't know, but now have reason to wonder.
|Fluffy Tyrannosaurus juveniles, one of the possibilities created by the idea that tyrannosaurs might have avian-like 'dynamic' skin. The recovery of scales in non-scaly clades is not as simple as it might first appear!|
Summing up timeLet's tie this all together. A lot of ambiguity remains about the skin of Tyrannosaurus and its relatives, and it's not wise to hold any opinion about their life appearance too strongly at present. However, unduly downplaying the creep of scaly evidence into the tyrannosaurid fossil record isn't useful or logical. The skull skin correlates and fossil skin patches show that scales were present in numerous, widely-distributed parts of the body, and - until we see evidence to the contrary - this is good reason to assume scalier Tyrannosaurus than we might be used to. And yes, this does mean that some of our favourite, fluffier interpretations are now directly contradicted by fossil data, and consigned to our ever growing book of historic, discredited reconstructions. But this is always a possibility in palaeontology: our views of these animals are only ever hypotheses based on a sparse, biased fossil record, and every new discovery risks overturning someone's favourite concept. The fact we're able to move on from these reconstructions is positive, as it means we're a little less uncertain about the past, and a little closer to the truth.
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