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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