Writing dinosaur fiction presents me with the problem of accurately describing the beasts. But appearances are only skin deep, and so the exact nature of dinosaur skin coverings is always on my mind. Have I written it right? Or will some dinosaur digger come along and say I’ve gotten it all wrong?
That’s why I continue to look at all the evidence I can find, whether on extinct dinosaurs or on their living relatives, the birds. Today I want to take a closer look at those fine feathered representatives of the dinosaurian lineage, the chickens, and see what they can tell us.
Above you see a fossilized piece of skin from a giant horn-faced dinosaur called a Centrosaurus. This fossil, collected by the American Museum of Natural History, shows the typical scaly hide often associated with the biggest and baddest of these beasts. Scientists identify these structures as scales similar to those seen on modern snakes, lizards, and birds. One scale in the upper right area is quite a bit larger than the others. Fine so far.
So let’s take a look at some bird scales. In this admittedly rather gross picture, a Chinese restaurant worker is peeling the outer skin layer from a chicken foot, which will soon grace a dim sum platter. You can immediately see the similarity of the scales on this delicacy with the fossilized scales on the Centrosaurus. Large scales, smaller scales, and even some tiny little ones. I imagine Centrosaurus feet would be considered an especially prized variety of dim sum. One foot feeds twenty people!
Anyway, here’s another look at dinosaur skin. This is a closeup of a fine-scaled form scientists call pebbles, found on a fossilized duckbilled dinosaur. It looks a lot like the smallest scales on that chicken foot.
Now, here’s the most interesting question of all. Just how much of a dinosaur’s hide was covered in what sort of scale? Large? Small? Pebbly? What?
And let’s not forget the recent fossil discoveries that have shown that most lineages of dinosaurs, meat eaters and plant eaters alike, had more than just scales on them. There were feathers and a sort of fur that fossil diggers like to call protofeathers or dino-fuzz. So, which parts of dinosaurs sported scaly coats, and which were equipped with sleek fur and feathers? No one knows for sure, but consider the following:
This is a picture of a breed of chicken called a Sultan. In addition to its turban of feathers where a naked-skinned comb ought to be, it also has swapped out some of those scales we were just looking at on its feet, for a bunch of feathers! Pretty incredible, isn’t it? And, given that breeders have only been collecting interesting mutant chickens like this for a couple of centuries, it’s mind-boggling to think of the number of variations that might have arisen in millions of years of dinosaur evolution. Every possible variation of scales and pebbles and fur and feathers must have existed on every possible part of the dinosaurian anatomy. Maybe even up-the-ying-yang and out the wahzoo!
So, how does this help me decide how to portray dinosaurs in my books? On the one hand, it makes knowing the absolute truth a matter of constant frustration. Even though the fossil record has provided dozens of examples of skin coverings, it is nevertheless a rare dinosaur for which the entire body has been preserved in enough detail to give a complete answer. So I am left guessing.
On the other hand, with so many variations of feathers and scales among chickens and other birds to go with, it’s clear that an author of dinosaur fiction has a “free range” of possibilities to choose from. And that’s what I do. My horn-faced dinosaur in “Saving Pachyrhinosaurus” is fully covered in woolly dino-fuzz, while the three-horned Triceratops in “Dinosaur Wars: Counterattack,” is quite scaly, with just a bit of fuzz here and there for effect.
Until someone can provide me with completely definitive fossil evidence, I’ll keep the variations coming.