Ah, the blast that ended the dinosaurs! So much controversy!
And to think it all dates back to the days when religion dominated science. When extinctions were explained by catastrophes ordered by God. Need to get rid of Pleistocene animals? Invoke a flood. Not just Noah's flood, either, the various churches decided there were plenty of catastrophes to go around. Catastrophism its known as.
Things started to change when Charles Lyell published his Principles of Geology. His theory was that you could observe geological processes at work in the world and make conclusions based on that. Erosion, sedimentation, etc. are slow, gradual processes. Lyell's book was reading material that Charles Darwin took with him on his Beagle voyage and the whole slow-and-steady change message really influenced his thought on evolution. It's known as Uniformitarianism.
But here's the thing--the geological community got hung up on this. It became verboten to attribute change to catastrophes. That was considered a reversion to the past, to the Church. Hence all the denial that a comet or asteroid impact could possibly be the reason for the Cretaceous extinction event.
At University of Calgary, we have a professor, Dr. Alan Hildebrand, who studies meteorites and impact sites. He has been a major contributor to the study of the Chicxulub Crater on the Yucatan Peninsula, the impact that is thought to have ended the Cretaceous period.
Just like Brusatte, I got my moment with the K/T boundary while in Cuba. Our tour guide took us to a place where that fateful layer was exposed. I got to put my hands on it, iridium, shocked quartz, and tektites included! After a bit of searching, I found my photo of it. Guys, its a seriously boring photo, but here it is:
Wish I had posed by it now, but what can you do?
Okay, feathered dinosaurs, y'all. I remember when these were being found and debated and I have been to a LOT of lectures about those early feathered finds.
And I've heard Phil Currie tell the story, so I have it from the horse's mouth. What Brusatte says about local Chinese farmers is absolutely true--they are educated individuals who have returned to the farms in Liaoning Province and they supplement their income by prospecting for fossils.
What Brusatte neglects to mention is that the Jehol Group (the geological formation in Liaoning) is a Laggerstatten, a sedimentary formation which preserves extraordinary fossils, often including soft tissues. These fossils can be found by splitting sedimentary layers and you will often find a fossil by splitting it, leaving part on the top layer, part on the bottom layer, part and counterpart.
A very savvy farmer found Sinosauropteryx and he sold it's part and counterpart to two separate museums. Double the income. Yay farmer! However, the heads of the two museums loathed one another. Neither would give up their portion of the significant fossil and neither would allow their portion to travel to where the other piece was.
Enter Dr. Currie, who was a neutral person and a diplomat, to visit both museums, examine both part and counterpart, confirm that they were parts of the same fossil and examine those fuzzy bits that you see coming down the spine.
Oh the huffing and the puffing of experts, many of whom had never seen the fossil, about whether that fluff was feathers or not. Much the same as when Archaeopteryx was found and the fuss over whether its feathers were real or not (and those were obviously flight feathers, unlike the fuzz on Sinosauropteryx.)
In 1999, feathered fossils came to Alberta, specifically to Drumheller's Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, where Dr. Currie was the head of Dinosaur fossils at the time. I made a pilgrimage and I hauled out my exhibition catalogue the other night to reminisce a bit:
(Sorry, nothing that I've tried can make this image display in the right direction.) I believe that the cover depicts Caudipteryx, not mentioned by Brusatte, but a fossil from Liaoning which featured obvious feathers, including those wonderful tail feathers.
I'm thrilled that it seems that the vast majority of paleontologists now agree that dinosaurs (at least the theropods) had feathers and that birds are indeed dinosaurs. This combines two of my own obsessions: Dinosaurs and bird watching.