Archaeopteryx October 22, 2009

British scientists have decided that the fossil Archaeopteryx is not, after all, the ‘missing link’ between reptiles and birds but was a fully developed bird. The conclusions (published in the scientific journal Nature and reported in the London Times on 5 August) stem from a new examination of the creature’s skull.

Using the latest computer tomography techniques, palaeontologists from the Natural History Museum in London ‘reconstructed’ the part of the skull that held the fossil’s brain, ears and eyes. They found that the size and shape of these organs were very similar to those in modern birds and concluded that Archaeopteryx possessed all the faculties necessary for flight. It could not therefore be an evolutionary link between birds and their supposed precursors.

As recently as 1982, Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr declared that Archaeopteryx was ‘the almost perfect [evolutionary] link between reptiles and birds’. Creationists pointed out repeatedly that the resemblance to dinosaurs is superficial and the fully developed flight feathers show the fossil to be that of a bird.

But their protests were ridiculed and for over a century Archaeopteryx has been a key icon of evolutionary theory, used to ‘prove’ evolution in text books and the media.

Although the new work sets back the popular idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs, it is unlikely to dampen enthusiasm for the theory among evolutionists. This theory has gained publicity recently from fossil ‘discoveries’ appearing to show that some dinosaurs had rudimentary feathers. In his book Icons of Evolution (Regnery Publishing Inc., 2000) Jonathan Wells gives several examples.

In 1993 a fossil was discovered in Montana and named Bambiraptor. It was presented in drawings as having hair-like projections and feathers on its forelimbs. However, it emerged that these embellishments were not present in the fossil itself but only in the imagination of the palaeontologists.

In 1997 the US National Geographic Society announced that a fossil purchased at an Arizona mineral show was ‘the missing link between terrestrial dinosaurs and birds that could actually fly’. However, the fossil turned out to be a forgery.

Two years later, National Geographic magazine published a drawing of a baby tyrannosaurus with feathers — but admitted that the feathers were a figment of the artist’s imagination.

They will no doubt keep on trying!


Here is a selection of comments made to Professor Andrews along with his responses.

You’re ignoring, of course, the numerous fossils of theropod dinosaurs with clearly preserved feathers that have been found in northeastern China over the past 15 years or so. I’ll be happy to show some of them to you if you’re ever in Beijing, where I work as a palaeontologist.

Also, Archaeopteryx itself remains a clearly transitional form, similar to modern birds in some features (the structure of the feathers and, as you point out, the brain) but also displaying obvious signs of its ancestry that distinguish it from any bird alive today (e.g. teeth, long tail).

C. Sullivan

No, we do not ignore scientific facts or fossil remains. The debate is not (usually) about the observations themselves but about the interpretation of the observations. In the cases you mention, for example, you interpret phenotopic similarities as evidence of evolutionary descent but the phenomenon of ‘convergence’ is so ubiquitous that great caution is needed in placing this interpretation on the factual evidence. Facts are one thing, interpretations another, and it is in the latter that world-views play such a strong part.

I would love to see the fossils but Beijing isn’t in my travel plans at present, I’m afraid. I have seen some pictures however but whether I saw genuine feathers (as in birds or Archaeopteryx) I’m not so sure.

Edgar Andrews

breast actives…

Good day! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok. I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts….

breast actives

No, I’m sorry I don’t use twitter myself but I am told that there are a lot of twitter comments about my work.

Edgar Andrews

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