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“By heaven furnished with paths;” (Surat adh-Dhariyat, 7)

The Arabic word alhubuki,” translated as “furnished with paths” in verse 7 of Surat adh-Dhariyat, comes from the verb hubeke,” meaning “to weave closely, to knit, to bind together.” The use of this word in the verse is particularly wise and represents the current state of scientific knowledge in two aspects.

The first is this: The orbits and paths in the universe are so dense and intertwined that they constitute intersecting paths, just like the threads in a piece of fabric. The Solar System we live in is made up of the Sun, the planets and their satellites and heavenly objects in constant motion such as meteors and comets. The Solar System moves through the galaxy known as the Milky Way, which contains 400 billion stars.1 It is estimated that there are billions of galaxies. Celestial bodies and systems revolving at speeds of thousands of kilometers an hour move through space without colliding with one another.

The science of astronomy was developed with the aim of mapping the positions and courses of stars, while astro-mechanics was developed in order to determine these complex motions. Astronomers used to assume that orbits were perfectly spherical. The fact is, however, that heavenly bodies are known to follow mathematical shapes, such as spherical, elliptical, parabolic or hyperbolic orbits. Dr. Carlo Rovelli of the University of Pittsburgh says, “Our space in which we live is just this enormously complicated spin network.”

Above left; the orbits of some of the bodies in the Solar System. Based on this picture and looking clockwise, it can be seen that the Solar System itself is part of even greater orbital movements.

The picture above shows some of the complex movements of stars.

The second aspect is that the description in the Qur’an of the sky using a word meaning “woven” may be a reference to the String Theory of physics. (Allah knows the truth.) According to this theory, the basic elements that comprise the universe are not point-like particles, but strings resembling miniature violin strings. These tiny, identical and one dimensional strings oscillating in the form of filaments are regarded as being like loops in appearance. It is assumed that the origin of all the diversity in the universe lies in the way these strings vibrate at different vibrations, in the same way that violin strings produce different sounds with different vibrations.

Although it is not possible to see the size of the threads in the String Theory, the only theory to bring theories such as Einstein’s theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics together in a coherent way, it can still be calculated mathematically. These strings, which scientists regard as the material from which space and time are woven, are just 1.6×10-35 m (0.000000000000000000000000000000000016 meters) in size.5 This, known as Plank’s length, is the smallest known, being just 10-20 of the protons that make up the nucleus of that atom.6 If an atom were to be magnified to the size of the Solar System, each one of these strings would be no bigger than a tree. 7 Bearing in mind that an atom is 100,000 times smaller than the smallest thing that can be seen with the naked eye, the minute scale of these strings can be more easily grasped.

 Professor of Physics Abhay Ashtekar from the University of Pennsylvania and Professor of Physics Jerzy Lewandowski from the University of Warsaw interpret the woven appearance of space as follows in an article titled “Space and Time Beyond Einstein”:

In this theory, Einstein wove the gravitational field into the very fabric of space and time… The continuum we are all used to is only an approximation. Perhaps the simplest way to visualize these ideas is to look at a piece of fabric. For all practical purposes, it represents a 2-dimensional continuum; yet it is really woven by 1-dimensional threads. The same is true of the fabric of space-time. It is only because the “quantum threads” which weave this fabric are tightly woven in the region of the universe we inhabit that we perceive a continuum. Upon intersection with a surface, each thread, or polymer excitation, endows it with a tiny “Plank quantum” of area of about 10-66 cm2. So an area of 100 cm2 has about 1068 such intersections; because the number is so huge, the intersections are very closely spaced and we have the illusion of a continuum.

An Article in the New York Times seeking an answer to the question “How Was the Universe Built?” contained the following lines:

Even the tiny quarks that make up protons, neutrons and other particles are too big to feel the bumps that may exist on the Planck scale. More recently, though, physicists have suggested that quarks and everything else are made of far tinier objects: superstrings vibrating in 10 dimensions. At the Planck level, the weave of space-time would be as apparent as when the finest Egyptian cotton is viewed under a magnifying glass, exposing the warp and woof.

In his book Three Roads to Quantum Gravity, the theoretical quantum physicist Lee Smolin devotes one chapter to “How to Weave a String” and says this on the subject:

… space may be ‘woven’ from a network of loops… just like a piece of cloth is ‘woven’ from a network of threads.

In his book Our Cosmic Habitat the cosmologist and astrophysicist Prof. Martin Rees says:
According to our present concepts, empty space is anything but simple… and on an even tinier scale, it may be a seething tangle of strings.

The way that Allah describes the universe as being woven paths and orbits in verse 7 of Surat adh-Dhariyat shows that the Qur’an is in extraordinary agreement with science. As can be seen in a great many other instances, the way that all the information revealed in the Qur’an 1400 years ago is confirmed by modern scientific data is highly thought provoking. This perfect harmony between the Qur’an and scientific developments clearly reveals that the Qur’an is the word of our Lord, the creator of and He who knows best about all things. In one verse Allah states:

“Will they not ponder the Qur’an? If it had been from other than Allah, they would have found many inconsistencies in it.” (Surat an-Nisa, 82)

Top 10 Ridiculously Common Science Myths

There is nothing better than a bit of mythbusting (which accounts for the popularity of the television program of the same name), so here we are again, presenting you with a new list of terribly common misconceptions and myths – this time about science.

10. Evolutionary Improvements

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The Myth: Evolution causes something to go from “lower” to “higher”

While it is a fact that natural selection weeds out unhealthy genes from the gene pool, there are many cases where an imperfect organism has survived. Some examples of this are fungi, sharks, crayfish, and mosses – these have all remained essentially the same over a great period of time. These organisms are all sufficiently adapted to their environment to survive without improvement.

Other taxa have changed a lot, but not necessarily for the better. Some creatures have had their environments changed and their adaptations may not be as well suited to their new situation. Fitness is linked to their environment, not to progress. [Source]

9. Humans Pop In Space


The Myth: When exposed to the vacuum of space, the human body pops

This myth is the result of science fiction movies which use it to add excitement or drama to the plot. In fact, a human can survive for 15 – 30 seconds in outer space as long as they breathe out before the exposure (this prevents the lungs from bursting and sending air into the bloodstream). After 15 or so seconds, the lack of oxygen causes unconsciousness which eventually leads to death by asphyxiation.

8. Brightest Star

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The Myth: Polaris is the brightest star in the northern hemisphere night sky

Sirius is actually brighter with a magnitude of ?1.47 compared to Polaris’ 1.97 (the lower the number the brighter the star). The importance of Polaris is that its position in the sky marks North – and for that reason it is also called the “North Star”. Polaris is the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor and, interestingly, is only the current North Star as pole stars change over time because stars exhibit a slow continuous drift with respect to the Earth’s axis.

7. Five Second Rule


The Myth: Food that drops on the floor is safe to eat if you pick it up within five seconds

This is utter bunkum which should be obvious to most readers. If there are germs on the floor and the food lands on them, they will immediately stick to the food. Having said that, eating germs and dirt is not always a bad thing as it helps us to develop a robust immune system. I prefer to have a “how-tasty-is-it” rule: if it is something really tasty, it can sit there for ten minutes for all I care – I will still eat it.

6. Dark side of the Moon

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The Myth: There is a dark side of the moon

Actually – every part of the moon is illuminated at sometime by the sun. This misconception has come about because there is a side of the moon which is never visible to the earth. This is due to tidal locking; this is due to the fact that Earth’s gravitational pull on the moon is so immense that it can only show one face to us. Wikipedia puts it rather smartly thus: “Tidal locking occurs when the gravitational gradient makes one side of an astronomical body always face another; for example, one side of the Earth’s Moon always faces the Earth. A tidally locked body takes just as long to rotate around its own axis as it does to revolve around its partner. This synchronous rotation causes one hemisphere constantly to face the partner body.”

5. Brain Cells

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The Myth: Brain cells can’t regenerate – if you kill a brain cell, it is never replaced

The reason for this myth being so common is that it was believed and taught by the science community for a very long time. But in 1998, scientists at the Sweden and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California discovered that brain cells in mature humans can regenerate. It had previously been long believed that complex brains would be severely disrupted by new cell growth, but the study found that the memory and learning center of the brain can create new cells – giving hope for an eventual cure for illnesses like Alzheimer’s.

4. Pennies from Heaven

Empirestatebuilding.JpgThe Myth: A penny dropped from a very high building can kill a pedestrian below

This myth is so common it has even become a bit of a cliche in movies. The idea is that if you drop a penny from the top of a tall building (such as the Empire State Building) – it will pick up enough speed to kill a person if it lands on them on the ground. But the fact is, the aerodynamics of a penny are not sufficient to make it dangerous. What would happen in reality is that the person who gets hit would feel a sting – but they would certainly survive the impact.

20050825-Meteor-Artist-Impression-110436.Jpg3. Friction Heat

The Myth: Meteors are heated by friction when entering the atmosphere

When a meteoroid enters the atmosphere of the earth (becoming a meteor), it is actually the speed compressing the air in front of the object that causes it to heat up. It is the pressure on the air that generates a heat intense enough to make the rock so hot that is glows brilliantly for our viewing pleasure (if we are lucky enough to be looking in the sky at the right time). We should also dispel the myth about meteors being hot when they hit the earth – becoming meteorites. Meteorites are almost always cold when they hit – and in fact they are often found covered in frost. This is because they are so cold from their journey through space that the entry heat is not sufficient to do more than burn off the outer layers.

2. Lightning

Lightning.JpgThe Myth: Lightning never strikes the same place twice

Next time you see lightning strike and you consider running to the spot to protect yourself from the next bolt, remember this item! Lightning does strike the same place twice – in fact it is very common. Lightning obviously favors certain areas such as high trees or buildings. In a large field, the tallest object is likely to be struck multiple times until the lightning moves sufficiently far away to find a new target. The Empire State Building gets struck around 25 times a year.

1. Gravity in Space

Astronaut Banjo.JpgThe Myth: There is no gravity in space

In fact, there is gravity in space – a lot of it. The reason that astronauts appear to be weightless because they are orbiting the earth. They are falling towards the earth but moving sufficiently sideways to miss it. So they are basically always falling but never landing. Gravity exists in virtually all areas of space. When a shuttle reaches orbit height (around 250 miles above the earth), gravity is reduced by only 10%.

20 Amazing Facts About the Human Body


The appendix gets a bad press. It is usually treated as a body part that lost its function millions of years ago. All it seems to do is occasionally get infected and cause appendicitis. Yet recently it has been discovered that the appendix is very useful to the bacteria that help your digestive system function. They use it to get respite from the strain of the frenzied activity of the gut, somewhere to breed and help keep the gut’s bacterial inhabitants topped up. So treat your appendix with respect.


Practically everything we experience is made up of molecules. These vary in size from simple pairs of atoms, like an oxygen molecule, to complex organic structures. But the biggest molecule in nature resides in your body. It is chromosome 1. A normal human cell has 23 pairs of chromosomes in its nucleus, each a single, very long, molecule of DNA. Chromosome 1 is the biggest, containing around 10bn atoms, to pack in the amount of information that is encoded in the molecule.


It is hard to grasp just how small the atoms that make up your body are until you take a look at the sheer number of them. An adult is made up of around 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (7 octillion) atoms.

body chimp


It might seem hard to believe, but we have about the same number of hairs on our bodies as a chimpanzee, it’s just that our hairs are useless, so fine they are almost invisible. We aren’t sure quite why we lost our protective fur. It has been suggested that it may have been to help early humans sweat more easily, or to make life harder for parasites such as lice and ticks, or even because our ancestors were partly aquatic.

But perhaps the most attractive idea is that early humans needed to co-operate more when they moved out of the trees into the savanna. When animals are bred for co-operation, as we once did with wolves to produce dogs, they become more like their infants. In a fascinating 40-year experiment starting in the 1950s, Russian foxes were bred for docility. Over the period, adult foxes become more and more like large cubs, spending more time playing, and developing drooping ears, floppy tails and patterned coats. Humans similarly have some characteristics of infantile apes – large heads, small mouths and, significantly here, finer body hair.

body goosebumps


Goosepimples are a remnant of our evolutionary predecessors. They occur when tiny muscles around the base of each hair tense, pulling the hair more erect. With a decent covering of fur, this would fluff up the coat, getting more air into it, making it a better insulator. But with a human’s thin body hair, it just makes our skin look strange.

Similarly we get the bristling feeling of our hair standing on end when we are scared or experience an emotive memory. Many mammals fluff up their fur when threatened, to look bigger and so more dangerous. Humans used to have a similar defensive fluffing up of their body hairs, but once again, the effect is now ruined. We still feel the sensation of hairs standing on end, but gain no visual bulk.

body astronaut


If sci-fi movies were to be believed, terrible things would happen if your body were pushed from a spaceship without a suit. But it’s mostly fiction. There would be some discomfort as the air inside the body expanded, but nothing like the exploding body parts Hollywood loves. Although liquids do boil in a vacuum, your blood is kept under pressure by your circulatory system and would be just fine. And although space is very cold, you would not lose heat particularly quickly. As Thermos flasks demonstrate, a vacuum is a great insulator.

In practice, the thing that will kill you in space is simply the lack of air. In 1965 a test subject’s suit sprang a leak in a Nasa vacuum chamber. The victim, who survived, remained conscious for around 14 seconds. The exact survival limit isn’t known, but would probably be one to two minutes.


The atoms that make up your body are mostly empty space, so despite there being so many of them, without that space you would compress into a tiny volume. The nucleus that makes up the vast bulk of the matter in an atom is so much smaller than the whole structure that it is comparable to the size of a fly in a cathedral. If you lost all your empty atomic space, your body would fit into a cube less than 1/500th of a centimetre on each side. Neutron stars are made up of matter that has undergone exactly this kind of compression. In a single cubic centimetre of neutron star material there are around 100m tons of matter. An entire neutron star, heavier than our sun, occupies a sphere that is roughly the size across of the Isle of Wight.


The atoms that make up matter never touch each other. The closer they get, the more repulsion there is between the electrical charges on their component parts. It’s like trying to bring two intensely powerful magnets together, north pole to north pole. This even applies when objects appear to be in contact. When you sit on a chair, you don’t touch it. You float a tiny distance above, suspended by the repulsion between atoms. This electromagnetic force is vastly stronger than the force of gravity – around a billion billion billion billion times stronger. You can demonstrate the relative strength by holding a fridge magnet near a fridge and letting go. The electromagnetic force from the tiny magnet overwhelms the gravitational attraction of the whole Earth.

body atoms


Every atom in your body is billions of years old. Hydrogen, the most common element in the universe and a major feature of your body, was produced in the big bang 13.7bn years ago. Heavier atoms such as carbon and oxygen were forged in stars between 7bn and 12bn years ago, and blasted across space when the stars exploded. Some of these explosions were so powerful that they also produced the elements heavier than iron, which stars can’t construct. This means that the components of your body are truly ancient: you are stardust.


One of the mysteries of science is how something as apparently solid and straightforward as your body can be made of strangely behaving quantum particles such as atoms and their constituents. If you ask most people to draw a picture of one of the atoms in their bodies, they will produce something like a miniature solar system, with a nucleus as the sun and electrons whizzing round like planets. This was, indeed, an early model of the atom, but it was realised that such atoms would collapse in an instant. This is because electrons have an electrical charge and accelerating a charged particle, which is necessary to keep it in orbit, would make it give off energy in the form of light, leaving the electron spiralling into the nucleus.

In reality, electrons are confined to specific orbits, as if they ran on rails. They can’t exist anywhere between these orbits but have to make a “quantum leap” from one to another. What’s more, as quantum particles, electrons exist as a collection of probabilities rather than at specific locations, so a better picture is to show the electrons as a set of fuzzy shells around the nucleus.

body blood cells


When you see blood oozing from a cut in your finger, you might assume that it is red because of the iron in it, rather as rust has a reddish hue. But the presence of the iron is a coincidence. The red colour arises because the iron is bound in a ring of atoms in haemoglobin called porphyrin and it’s the shape of this structure that produces the colour. Just how red your haemoglobin is depends on whether there is oxygen bound to it. When there is oxygen present, it changes the shape of the porphyrin, giving the red blood cells a more vivid shade.

body dna


Surprisingly, not all the useful DNA in your chromosomes comes from your evolutionary ancestors – some of it was borrowed from elsewhere. Your DNA includes the genes from at least eight retroviruses. These are a kind of virus that makes use of the cell’s mechanisms for coding DNA to take over a cell. At some point in human history, these genes became incorporated into human DNA. These viral genes in DNA now perform important functions in human reproduction, yet they are entirely alien to our genetic ancestry.


On sheer count of cells, there is more bacterial life inside you than human. There are around 10tn of your own cells, but 10 times more bacteria. Many of the bacteria that call you home are friendly in the sense that they don’t do any harm. Some are beneficial.

In the 1920s, an American engineer investigated whether animals could live without bacteria, hoping that a bacteria-free world would be a healthier one. James “Art” Reyniers made it his life’s work to produce environments where animals could be raised bacteria-free. The result was clear. It was possible. But many of Reyniers’s animals died and those that survived had to be fed on special food. This is because bacteria in the gut help with digestion. You could exist with no bacteria, but without the help of the enzymes in your gut that bacteria produce, you would need to eat food that is more loaded with nutrients than a typical diet.

body mite


Depending on how old you are, it’s pretty likely that you have eyelash mites. These tiny creatures live on old skin cells and the natural oil (sebum) produced by human hair follicles. They are usually harmless, though they can cause an allergic reaction in a minority of people. Eyelash mites typically grow to a third of a millimetre and are near-transparent, so you are unlikely to see them with the naked eye. Put an eyelash hair or eyebrow hair under the microscope, though, and you may find them, as they spend most of their time right at the base of the hair where it meets the skin. Around half the population have them, a proportion that rises as we get older.

body eye


Your eyes are very sensitive, able to detect just a few photons of light. If you take a look on a very clear night at the constellation of Andromeda, a little fuzzy patch of light is just visible with the naked eye. If you can make out that tiny blob, you are seeing as far as is humanly possible without technology. Andromeda is the nearest large galaxy to our own Milky Way. But “near” is a relative term in intergalactic space – the Andromeda galaxy is 2.5m light years away. When the photons of light that hit your eye began their journey, there were no human beings. We were yet to evolve. You are seeing an almost inconceivable distance and looking back in time through 2.5m years.


Despite what you’ve probably been told, you have more than five senses. Here’s a simple example. Put your hand a few centimetres away from a hot iron. None of your five senses can tell you the iron will burn you. Yet you can feel that the iron is hot from a distance and won’t touch it. This is thanks to an extra sense – the heat sensors in your skin. Similarly we can detect pain or tell if we are upside down.

Another quick test. Close your eyes and touch your nose. You aren’t using the big five to find it, but instead proprioception. This is the sense that detects where the parts of your body are with respect to each other. It’s a meta-sense, combining your brain’s knowledge of what your muscles are doing with a feel for the size and shape of your body. Without using your basic five senses, you can still guide a hand unerringly to touch your nose.


body ovum

Just like a chicken, your life started off with an egg. Not a chunky thing in a shell, but an egg nonetheless. However, there is a significant difference between a human egg and a chicken egg that has a surprising effect on your age. Human eggs are tiny. They are, after all, just a single cell and are typically around 0.2mm across – about the size of a printed full stop. Your egg was formed in your mother – but the surprising thing is that it was formed when she was an embryo. The formation of your egg, and the half of your DNA that came from your mother, could be considered as the very first moment of your existence. And it happened before your mother was born. Say your mother was 30 when she had you, then on your 18th birthday you were arguably over 48 years old.


We are used to thinking of genes as being the controlling factor that determines what each of us is like physically, but genes are only a tiny part of our DNA. The other 97% was thought to be junk until recently, but we now realise that epigenetics – the processes that go on outside the genes – also have a major influence on our development. Some parts act to control “switches” that turn genes on and off, or program the production of other key compounds. For a long time it was a puzzle how around 20,000 genes (far fewer than some breeds of rice) were enough to specify exactly what we were like. The realisation now is that the other 97% of our DNA is equally important.


body mri

If you are like most people, you will locate your conscious mind roughly behind your eyes, as if there were a little person sitting there, steering the much larger automaton that is your body. You know there isn’t really a tiny figure in there, pulling the levers, but your consciousness seems to have an independent existence, telling the rest of your body what to do.

In reality, much of the control comes from your unconscious. Some tasks become automatic with practice, so that we no longer need to think about the basic actions. When this happens the process is handled by one of the most primitive parts of the brain, close to the brain stem. However even a clearly conscious action such as picking up an object seems to have some unconscious precursors, with the brain firing up before you make the decision to act. There is considerable argument over when the conscious mind plays its part, but there is no doubt that we owe a lot more to our unconscious than we often allow.


The picture of the world we “see” is artificial. Our brains don’t produce an image the way a video camera works. Instead, the brain constructs a model of the world from the information provided by modules that measure light and shade, edges, curvature and so on. This makes it simple for the brain to paint out the blind spot, the area of your retina where the optic nerve joins, which has no sensors. It also compensates for the rapid jerky movements of our eyes called saccades, giving a false picture of steady vision.

But the downside of this process is that it makes our eyes easy to fool. TV, films and optical illusions work by misleading the brain about what the eye is seeing. This is also why the moon appears much larger than it is and seems to vary in size: the true optical size of the moon is similar to a hole created by a hole punch held at arm’s length.

Good and Bad Microbes

Good Microbes

With such a variety of microscopic organisms, it’s bound to happen that there are some that help the world. There will also be some that hurt the world. We will cover those in another section. We’re going to cover a few of the good ones here.

Fixing Nitrogen in Soil

There are bacteria that go through a process called fixing nitrogen. These bacteria, living in the roots of plants, actually help them absorb nitrogen from the surrounding soil. The nitrogen is very important for the growth of the plant, and these little bacteria give them an advantage for survival.
Microbes in the stomachs of cows help them eat grass

Helping Cows Eat Grass

As we said, not all protists are bad for the world. In the bacteria section we already told you about a species that lives in the digestive system in cows. These bacteria help cows break down the cellulose in plants. Similar bacteria live in all sorts of grazing animals, helping them survive off plant material. Many ecosystems are based on creatures that are called herbivores.

Mold on fruit was found to help fight bacterial diseases


Scientists have even discovered fungi that will help you battle bacterial diseases. So you get sick, the doctor looks at you and says you have a bacterial infection, maybe bronchitis. He prescribes an antibiotic to help you get better. Antibiotics are drugs designed to destroy bacteria by weakening their cell walls. When the bacterial cell walls are weak, your immune cells can go in and destroy the bacteria. Although there are many types now, one of the first antibiotics was called penicillin. It was developed from a fungus (a fungus named Penicillium found on an orange, to be exact).

Bad Microbes

With such a variety of microscopic organisms, it’s bound to happen that some do not help anything in the world. Some also help the world. We cover those in another section. We’re going to cover a few of the bad ones here.


Many species of bacteria cause disease in humans, animals, and even plants. Humans worry about bacteria that cause botulism (bacteria living in spaces without oxygen, such as cans), tetanus and E. coli. You should know that there are also some good forms of E. Coli living in your intestines. They help break down food and live a simple life (and yes, they make it smell down there). There are also E. Coli that can be passed to you from undercooked meat. These bad bacteria can make you very sick and even kill you.

A Role in Natural Selection

We don’t know of any viruses that are good for the world. They are an important piece of evolution and natural selection. Weaker and older animals are more easily infected. Those organisms are removed from the population so that healthier animals can survive. But the virus life cycle, that of a parasite, only hurts the organisms. Some even destroy cells in order to reproduce. And don’t think you are the only one to get sick. Viruses attack plants and even bacteria. No organism is safe from damage. Examples of viruses include Rabies, Pneumonia, and Meningitis.

Dino-Birds – The Small, Feathered Dinosaurs

Part of the reason so many ordinary people doubt the evolutionary link between feathered dinosaurs and birds is because when they think of the word “dinosaur,” they picture enormous beasts like Brachiosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex, and when they think of the word “bird,” they picture harmless, rodent-sized pigeons and robins (and perhaps the occasional eagle or penguin). See a gallery of feathered dinosaur pictures

Closer to the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, though, the visual referents are a lot different. For decades, paleontologists have been digging up small, birdlike theropods (the same family of two-legged dinosaurs that includes tyrannosaurs and raptors) bearing unmistakable evidence of feathers, wishbones, and other bits of avian anatomy. Unlike larger dinosaurs, these smaller theropods tend to be unusually well-preserved, and many such fossils have been found completely intact (which is more than can be said for the average sauropod).

Feathered Dinosaurs, Birds and Evolution

What do these fossils tell us about the evolution of prehistoric birds from dinosaurs? Well, for starters, it’s impossible to pin down a single “missing link” between these two types of animals. For a while, scientists believed the 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx was the indisputable transitional form, but it’s still not clear if this was a true bird (as some experts claim) or a very small, and not very aerodynamic, theropod dinosaur.

(In fact, a new study claims that the feathers of Archaeopteryx weren’t strong enough to sustain extended bursts of flight.)

The problem is, the subsequent discovery of other small, feathered dinosaurs that lived at the same time as Archaeopteryx–such as Epidendrosaurus, Pedopenna and Xiaotingia–has muddied the picture considerably, and there’s no ruling out the possibility that future paleontologists will unearth dino-birds from as far back as the Triassic period. In addition, it’s far from clear that all these feathered theropods were closely related: evolution has a way of repeating its jokes, and feathers (and wishbones) may well have evolved multiple times.

To show how tricky this issue is, here’s the standard picture of bird evolution: small, running theropods (for the sake of argument, let’s say raptors) evolved feathers as a way of keeping warm and attracting mates. As these feathers grew larger and more ornate, they provided an unexpected bonus: a split-second of extra “lift” when their owner pounced on prey or ran away from larger predators. Multiply this scenario by countless generations, and you have a solid theory for the origin of avian flight.

Feathered Dinosaurs up in Trees

There are, however, a few complications with this story. Although the “ground up” theory of bird evolution is widely accepted by paleontologists, we have strong evidence that feathered dinosaurs like Scansoriopteryx and Microraptor spent most of their lives in trees. In addition, Microraptor appears to have had wings on both its front and back limbs–making it more like a gliding squirrel than a modern bird. Did feathered flight begin when these tree-dwelling dinosaurs’ young accidentally fell out of the perch?

In any event, how do we know that these feathered dinosaurs led an arboreal (tree-dwelling) lifestyle? Paleontologists often abstract prehistoric behavior from the lifestyles of similarly proportioned modern creatures. For example, the long middle fingers of Epidendrosaurus look uncannily like the claws of some South American lemurs, whose sole function is to pry insects out of tree bark!

Too Many Feathered Dinosaurs

Another problem with tracing the exact course of dinosaur-bird evolution is that so many likely ancestors technically belonged to different families. While all feathered dinosaurs that we know of were true theropods, some are classified as raptors, some as oviraptors, some as troodonts, some as ornithomimids and some as, well, your guess is as good as the experts’ (it’s even possible that juvenile tyrannosaurs had a fine feather coating). The key thing is, all these creatures resembled each other more closely than they resembled the typical genera in their extended families (for example, Sinornithosaurus looks a lot more like the troodont Sinovenator than it does its fellow raptor Deinonychus).

Further complicating matters, the behavior of small, feathered dinosaurs seems to have been remarkably adaptable. Paleontologists have yet to discover any meat-eating ornithopods (these dinosaurs were strictly vegetarian), but at least two feathered “therizinosaur” theropods–Incisivosaurus and Falcarius–appear to have been plant eaters, and the large, ostrich-like ornithomimids were probably omnivorous.

The Feathered Dinosaurs of Liaoning

Every now and then, paleontologists stumble across a fossil treasure trove that forever changes the public’s perception of dinosaurs. Such was the case in the early 1990’s, when researchers uncovered rich fossil deposits in Liaoning, a northeastern province of China. All of the fossils date from about 130 million years ago, making Liaoning a spectacular window into the early Cretaceous period.

Although Liaoning has yielded fossilized insects, fish and mammals, among other creatures, it has become best known for its small, feathered dinosaurs. To date, paleontologists have uncovered dozens of exceptionally well-preserved fossils of feathered theropods, accounting for over a dozen separate genera. (You can often recognize a Liaoning dino-bird from its name; witness the “sino,” meaning “Chinese,” in Sinornithosaurus, Sinosauropteryx and Sinovenator.)

Since Liaoning’s fossil deposits represent a mere snapshot in the long history of dinosaurs, their discovery has raised the possibility that more dinosaurs were feathered than scientists have ever dreamed–and that the evolution of dinosaurs into birds was not a one-time, linear process. In fact, it’s very possible that dinosaurs evolved into what we would recognize as “birds” numerous times over the course of a hundred million years–with only one branch surviving into the modern era and yielding those familiar pigeons, sparrows, penguins and eagles.

Biology Facts

Fun biology facts for kids

Increase your biology knowledge with this great collection of interesting biology facts. Learn about cells, DNA, ecology, natural selection, bacteria, viruses, yeast, evolution, cloning and much more.

  • People that study biology are known as biologists.

  • Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the largest living structure on Earth. Reaching over 2000 kilometres (1240 miles) in length.

  • The first person to see a live cell with a microscope was Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, in 1674.

  • Ecology is the study of ecosystems and how organisms interact with their environment.

  • While some bacteria can make you sick, others have positive benefits such as helping you digest food or even make yoghurt.

  • Moulds, yeasts and mushrooms are types of fungus.

  • The common cold is a type of virus.

  • Viruses can be treated with antiviral drugs.

  • Bacteria are extremely small and are made up of just one cell.

  • Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics.

  • Animals that eat plants as their primary food source are known as herbivores.

  • Endangered species are those that are in danger of being completely wiped out, they include blue whales, tigers and pandas. Without protection these species may eventually become extinct.

  • Born on July 5th 1996, Dolly the sheep was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult cell.

  • When the DNA of an organism changes and results in a new trait (characteristic) it is known as mutation.

  • French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur was well known for inventing a process to stop various foods and liquids making people sick. Called Pasteurization, it reduces the amount of microorganisms that could lead to disease without having a noticeable effect on taste and quality in a way which methods such as sterilization might.

  • Charles Darwin developed the idea of natural selection, sometimes called survival of the fittest. It is a process that involves living things with favorable traits being more likely to reproduce, passing on their favorable traits to future generations.