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No. 78: Nov-Dec 1991

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Fossil Identity Still Up In The Air

Bird-like fossils from Texas -- Protoavis?
In 1986, we reported the discovery of bird-like fossils in Texas by S. Chatterjee, a paleontologist at Texas Technical University. Chatterjee was so certain that the fossils (two specimens exist) were primitive birds that he named the species Protoavis texensis (first bird from Texas). During the past five years, the scientific community has chafed while Chatterjee studied his finds and wrote them up. It seems that many paleontologists do not think that Proto-avis is really a bird at all, and Chatter jee has been slow in releasing details. But now his first paper has appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Result: Many doubts still remain about the status of Protoavis.

A. Feduccia: "Calling this the original bird is irresponsible." (1)

J.H. Ostrom: "Sad to say, for all its length, little support for the claim is to be found in this paper." (2)

J. Gauthier: While some of the bones appear bird-like, they also look dinosaurian and could represent a new type of theropod dinosaur. (3)

For his part, Chjatterjee asserts that Protoavis' skull has 23 features that are fundamentally bird-like, as are the forelimbs, the shoulders, and the hip girdle.

"His reconstruction also shows a flexible neck, large brain, binocular vision, and, crucially, portals running from the rear of the skull to the eye socket -- a feature seen in modern birds but not dinosaurs." (1)

Just why is there so much fuss over a handful of poorly preserved bones? If Protoavis is really a bird, it places the origin of birds 75 million years earlier and dethrones Archaeopteryx as a tran sitional link between dinosaurs and birds. In fact, Protoavis essentially denies that birds evolved from the dinosaurs. In short, Protoavis could change a limb or two on that Tree of Life you see in all the textbooks.

References

1. Anderson, Alun; "Early Bird Threatens Archaeopteryx's Perch," Science, 253:35, 1991.
2. Ostrom, John H.; "The Bird in the Bush," Nature, 353:212, 1991.
3. Monastersky, Richard; "The Lonely Bird," Science News, 140:104, 1991.

From Science Frontiers #78, NOV-DEC 1991. 1991-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:

Quotes

  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987