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No. 87: May-Jun 1993

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Fossil Feathers Fly

Feduccia's cartoon of the bug-catching phase of bird evolution
A. Feduccia's cartoon of the bug-catching phase of bird evolution
Our alliterative title is apt on two counts: (1) Recent research on the famous Archaeopteryx fossils suggest that this animal could indeed fly and was arboreal rather than terrestrial; and (2) The paleontologists and ornithologists are still fighting (sometimes emotionally) over how Archaeopteryx fossils should be interpreted.

The scientific acrimony centers on whether this ancient bird really evolved from small theropod dinosaurs. Prevailing theory has it that these dinosaurs first evolved feathers to keep warm and then used their feathered "arms" to help capture insects, and so on, with some aimless flapping, to the attainment of true flight. A rival, officially frownedupon theory has it that birds evolved from tree-dwelling reptiles that evolved feathers to break their falls while jumping from branch to branch! [Somehow, neither theory strikes a realistic chord. Why couldn't feathers have evolved solely for the purpose of flight? Answer: because evolutionists cannot countenance purpose in nature. WRC]

Reconstruction of Archaeopteryx
One reconstruction of Archaeopteryx. There is a remarkable superficial resemblance to the living South American hoatzin. Young hoatzin even sport claws on their wings.
Anyway, the latest fusillade in the Archaeopteryx wars was fired by A. Feduccia in Science. Feduccia demonstrated that the claws of Archaeopteryx are sharp and curved like those of modern arboreal birds and quite unlike either terrestrial birds or theropod dinosaurs. In concluding his long, detailed paper, Feduccia highlights nine additional features of Archaeopteryx that make it look like a modern arboreal bird; i.e., barbed feathers, asymmetrical flight feathers, etc. V. Morell quotes Feducci as saying, "Paleontologists have tried to turn Archaeopteryx into an earthbound feathered dinosaur. But it's not. It is a bird, a perching bird. And no amount of 'paleobabble' is going to change that."

(Feduccia, Alan; "Evidence from Claw Geometry Indicating Arboreal Habits of Archaeopteryx," Science, 259:790, 1993. Morell, Virginia; "Archaeopteryx: Early Bird Catches a Can of Worms," Science, 259:764, 1993. Monastersky, R.; "Flight: A Bird Hand Is Worthy in the Bush," Science News, 143:87, 1993.)

Comment. Unremarked in the three articles referenced above is a more serious anomaly that is highlighted by the many modern features of Archaeopteryx; for example, the lack of any transitional fossils between Archaeopteryx and its ancestors. Where are reptiles with crudely feathered, but somehow useful tails?

From Science Frontiers #87, MAY-JUN 1993. 1993-2000 William R. Corliss