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Flying dinosaurs, flightless dinosaurs and other evolutionary fantasies

by –Canada

18 March 2005 (pre-publication version - for published version see PDF here)

‘We can even choose to apply the concept of birdness yet further back, although this would include animals that are even further removed from our common understanding of what birds are.’

This is what the new exhibition opened at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto from 12 March to 5 September 2005 says on a poster. Although the official title of the exhibition is ‘Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Flight’ it turns out one of the main topics is in a sense language, not fossils. This is because it ventures into altering the definition of birds in order to accommodate fossil discoveries into the ever-changing evolutionary scenarios. The organizers are the Dinosaur Museum of Blanding, Utah, and the Fossil Administration Office of Liaoning, China, in collaboration with the Geological Institute of the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences.

The history

The fossils come mainly from the famous Liaoning area in China, but the real star—Scansoriopteryx heilmanni (‘Heilmann’s climbing wing’)—comes from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (in China). Allegedly, 40 to 60 million years older than the Liaoning fossils and 25 to 45 million years older than the ancient bird Archaeopteryx, this is hailed as the earliest feathered flying dinosaur or as the earliest bird! Yes, confusing as it may sound, they haven’t made up their minds yet, because there are so many unusual fossils preserved in Liaoning that both approaches seem to fit.

Some of these Chinese fossils have been presented in previous exhibitions around the world (see Chinese feathered dinosaurs, where are the skeptics?), but this exhibit’s layout and some of its diagrams and posters are a clear departure from the well-known evolutionary story of the dinosaur–bird connection. Even more so since the same fossils in an exhibition with the same title in San Diego, California, presented a significantly different story (see www.sdnhm.org/exhibits/feathered/). To start with, one of the very first posters clearly states, ‘The few dinosaurs that were known in the 1800s were initially thought of as giant reptiles or lizards. However, scientists soon realized that there was some kind of relationship between dinosaurs and birds. What the actual relationship is still remains a question to this day [emphasis added].’

Cladistics

Partial cladogram showing the supposed evolutionary relationship between Deinonychus and modern birds

Figure 1: Click image to enlarge. Partial cladogram showing the supposed evolutionary relationship between Deinonychus and modern birds

Since a clear-cut answer to that question cannot be offered, the approach this exhibit takes is cladistics—which means it determines the evolutionary relationships of living things based on derived similarities, unlike phenetics, which groups organisms based on their overall similarity and more traditional approaches, which tend to rely on key characters. A cladogram—the family tree of cladistics—is made up of a series of connected nodes (figure 1). Ideally, each node splits the chain into two upward evolutionary branches, one leading to the next node, the other one to an existing or extinct group of animals. One of the main consequences of cladistics is that it allows so-called primitive and evolved creatures (that seem to suggest ‘grandparents’ and ‘grandchildren’ of each other in evolutionary ways of thinking) to coexist, claiming they share a common ancestor—not that the ‘grandchild/evolved’ form actually came from the ‘grandparent/primitive’ one. Cladistics replaces this unknown common ancestor with a node that bears the name of a group (clade), but it doesn’t give a face since the actual (completely hypothetical) ancestral animal has not been discovered!

The cladogram called ‘The dinosaurian heritage of birds’ at the very end of the exhibition’s long winding path tells a very long story. But it is worth a complete read in order to understand the extent of wishful thinking with which cladistics abounds. Translated into plain English, it says: from a foggy unknown ancestor came reptiles (a clade). An unknown reptile diverged at some stage into turtles and into another clade called Diapsida (with two openings). Later, an unknown diapsid diverged into the group of lizards, snakes, etc. and into a clade named Archosaurs (ruling lizards). An unknown archosaur then diverged into crocodiles and another clade called Ornithodira (bird necks). An unknown ornithodiran then diverged (by way of evolution, obviously) into Pterosaurs (winged reptiles) and into Dinosaurs (terrible lizards). As evolution stubbornly continued, dinosaurs later allegedly branched out into Ornithischians (bird-hipped dinosaurs) and Saurischians (lizard-hipped dinosaurs). An unknown saurischian went on to diverge into Sauropodomorphs (with legs like sauropods) and so on up until Neognathae (modern birds).

It is easy to notice that not a single actual common ancestor has ever been discovered; the hypothetical creature in each case is assigned to a group consisting of many different types. Very convenient, yet lacking the basic evidence most people would reasonably want to have. The Bible, on the other hand, gives us far more than hypothetical entities and fancy-named categories. It gives us a history as recorded by the author of the universe, yet how many public museums (financed by the taxpayers) exhibit that history? None!

Mosaic on the ceiling of the Royal Ontario Museum’s foyer

Figure 2: Mosaic on the ceiling of the Royal Ontario Museum’s foyer

Ironically, the ROM has one little item related to that. As you enter the lobby, lift your eyes and have a look at the beautiful gilded mosaic on the vaulted ceiling (figure 2). Right in the centre there is a square bearing the inscription, ‘THAT ALL MEN MAY KNOW HIS WORK’ (Job 37:7). Unfortunately, this small detail is completely ignored by the vast majority of the visitors. For them this is a temple of unquestioned pagan, secular, humanistic religion and teachings. It is sad to see how much our culture has changed.

The exhibition

The introduction to the exhibit shows the clever imagination of the bird-dinosaur believer. Models of feathered Deinonychus (terrible claw) are exhibited in the shadow of Therizinosaurus, a gigantic combination of Sesame Street’s Big Bird and a giant sloth (figures 3 and 4). Therizinosaurus is believed to be the ancestor of dromaeosaurs. This creature, with 1 foot-long claws on its forelimbs, gazes down on its alleged relatives and visitors alike as they exit the exhibition. To the left there is a nice set of three non-feathered Deinonychus reconstructions (figure 5) with the following text:

These sculptures were originally made between 1986 and 1989 with scaly hides, based on fossil skin impressions from other dinosaurs. When Deinonychus was first described in 1969, it was thought to be a bird-like dinosaur and a possible ancestor to birds. Now it is known that Deinonychus itself had ancestors that flew—flying dromaeosaurs—which makes it a form of flightless bird instead of a dinosaur. Had Deinonychus been found after the discovery of fossil flying dromaeosaurs in China, scientists could not have thought of it as a scaly dinosaur, but as a bird that had lost its ability to fly [emphasis added].

Feathered models of deinonychus, with a therizinosaurus in the background

Figure 3: Feathered models of deinonychus, with a therizinosaurus in the background

The implications of this text are massive and reveal the flakiness of the concept of evolutionary trees. First notice that this text clearly states what the exhibit is all about: a fundamental change in the interpretation of long-known dinosaur fossils. It also shows that many of the all-too-familiar features of many dinosaurs are in fact inferred, not demonstrated—though that is not the impression one is left with on visiting any exhibit on the topic. It is almost pathetic to claim that science once believed (mind you, at that time the wording was more like ‘we know that …’) Deinonychus was a ‘possible ancestor to birds’ but now we know the same animal was a degenerate bird descended from the flying dromaeosaurs! This text claims that flying dromaeosaurs were in fact birds, whose descendants lost their ability to fly. However, later into the exhibit dromaeosaurs are considered flying reptiles not birds!

The famous Discovery Channel documentary Walking with Dinosaurs (see ‘Walking with … untruths!’) depicted the velociraptors as ferocious and shrewd predatory dinosaurs. Yet now we find they were in fact de-evolved birds (because the Velociraptor like the Deinonychus are considered dromaeosaurs).

Close-up of a therizinosaurus

Figure 4: Close-up of a therizinosaurus

The fossils

The exquisite details that have been preserved are spectacular. Even veins within leaves and insect wings are clearly seen on the surfaces of the lake and volcanic sediments of the Yixian Formation (Early Cretaceous—allegedly 125 million years old).1

After spending many hours closely looking at the exhibits, I came to the conclusion that feathers are present on the fossils of birds, but the presence of feathers on dromaeosaurs and pterosaurs (flying reptiles like Pterorhynchus) is very much a matter of speculation, with no clear evidence on display that they are true feathers and/or that they belong to the fossil dinosaurs. There is no doubt that thin dark or even black filaments are associated with many of the small dromaeosaur fossils. Yet they could just as easily be the remains of a water plant that grew in those ancient lakes. There are at least two hints in this exhibition of such a possibility:

  1. The fossil Ginko species named Ckanowskia rigida is shown and described as having ‘thread-like’ leaves!

  2. In the ultraviolet image of the Pterorhynchus there is a marked contrast in colour between the bones and the alleged feathers, which suggests quite different origins of the two.

Non-feathered models of deinonychus

Figure 5: Non-feathered models of deinonychus

Another possibility is that the filaments are from bird feathers which are preserved with the dinosaur fossils. There is a significant density of preserved bird fauna at this location, one may safely assume there were a great many nests, too. Since birds are known to use feathers to insulate/decorate their nests, it is possible that the violent volcanic eruptions that seem to have contributed to the rapid and excellent fossilization blew many of these nests and their contents into the lakes where they became closely associated with some of the dying dinosaurs and pterosaurs. It is also possible that this area was a traditional shedding area for birds (like in the case of penguins on certain shores) so that large amounts of feathers were incorporated in the rapidly depositing sediments.

The one thing that amazed me as I was looking at these fossils—most of them compressed to almost 2-D—is how the paleontologists reconstruct such minute details of morphology and anatomy from flattened (in many cases displaced) skeletons. But then I remembered; these fellows would be doing their work with a clear image in their minds; like ‘apeman artists’, they would have pretty well known what they wanted to come up with. I was reminded of what Donald Johansen (the discoverer of the alleged human ancestor ‘Lucy’) admitted about bias, ‘I was trying to jam evidence of dates into a pattern that would support conclusions about fossils which, on closer inspection, the fossils themselves would not sustain.’ 2

Feather evolution

In order to convince the visitor about the authenticity of the feathers on these dinosaurs, a large panel with the hypothetical development of feathers presents the evolution from a single filament (stage 1) to the full, asymmetrical flight feather (stage 5). However, no clear evidence is provided in this exhibition. The microphotographs that claim to show v-shaped structures (features considered to be feathers, in the skin of Pterorhynchus are unconvincing. These structures could be collagen fibres or fossilization artifacts, and to my eyes they look more like hairs. Finally, the photo enlargement of what is claimed to be a feather in the third stage (though it looks like one in the fourth stage in the adjacent diagram) is not as compelling a piece of evidence as they claim. I could again see many similarities with some water plants.

One even more intriguing claim is that a Psittacosaurus (considered the earliest ancestor of horned dinosaurs like the Triceratops) had ‘strand-like bristles’ (primitive feathers) on its tail. This ornithischian (bird-hipped dinosaur) is not considered an ancestor of birds, although it shares with them a ‘derived’ characteristic: the pelvic girdle (cladistics again). This is the only exhibited fossil that is clearly 3-D, so one can see more details. Yet those details do not really prove there are also feathers associated with the fossil.

New ideas, new teachings wrapped in the same old story

I found three of the texts posted in the exhibition especially riveting, as they seem to take logic one step closer to extinction:

We now know that birds are not the only animals which had feathers. Pterosaurs, the flying reptiles, and some dinosaurs had feathers of one kind or another. This raises interesting questions: how were these three kinds of animals related to each other? Did feathers evolve once, twice or three separate times? Did one of these groups descend directly from one of the others or do the three groups share a distant common ancestor? How far back in time does each group go?

A plain reading tells us that this means that birds are not dinosaurs since they are contrasted in the first sentence to pterosaurs and ‘some dinosaurs’. Yet another text states:

You have seen that birds share many special—unique or nearly unique—features with dinosaurs [but there are many more differences]. The best way to explain these special shared features is to conclude that birds share common ancestors [or maybe a common Designer?] With other dinosaurs. Some of these shared characteristics are shown here on the cladogram. As you can see, modern birds (Aves, at top right) are the only surviving members of the vast dinosaur family.

And the third text makes things even more confusing:

However, the discovery that some dromaeosaurs could fly identifies them as birds and now places them within the class Aves. Furthermore, the discovery of Scansoriopteryx supports the alternative that birds could have evolved from ‘the trees down’. This discovery also suggests that a separate tree-dwelling ancestry for birds existed, one so old that it predated the appearance of theropod dinosaurs.

So are birds dinosaurs or not? I must confess to faint bemusement at the use of the word ‘kind’ rather than ‘species’, ‘genus’, ‘family’, ‘clade’, etc. The Bible tells us God created animals after their own kind!

And there are more problems with the first text: feathers may have evolved three times! Once from scales (though that, by itself, represents a serious problem, see what CMI’s Dr Sarfati has to say about that in Skeptics/Australian Museum "Feathered Dinosaur" display: Knockdown argument against creation?). The second time from skin (in the case of pterosaurs) and finally from … well it’s not clear, since we don’t know what the ‘separate tree dwelling’ ancestors were and if they had scales or skin.

In plain English, what this exhibition appears to say is: there are so many fossils which we believe are connected to the ancestry of birds that we cannot make up our minds about their evolution. It may well be that they followed a different evolutive path before the appearance of theropod dinosaurs because by the time theropod dinosaurs had feathers and some even flew, true birds were already present. But the unknown bird ancestor had to be a dinosaur because there are too many derived characteristics they share. Just as some birds lost their ability to fly, some of the flying dinosaurs also did, so that species like Velociraptor and Deinonychus have not evolved feathers for insulation but for flight, but in time they lost their ability to fly. Flightless birds and dinosaurs coexisted and competed, yet the dinosaurs died off all at the same time while some of the birds survived to this day.

There are many questions left unanswered:

  • Why is it that a very successful group of flying animals—pterosaurs—despite having ‘evolved’ feathers, never evolved into birds?

  • Why is it that the animals that had the most important (and difficult-to-evolve) feature for flight, (i.e. massive forelimbs), did not evolve into birds, whereas others allegedly did?

  • How could dromaeosaurs shift the vast majority of the physical strength from their lower limbs (all other theropods had 75% of their strength in their hips) to the upper limbs, in order to be capable of flight?

  • Where did the genetic information for such a massive change come from? Mutations cannot possibly act in such a way.

For the believer in the true history of the Bible, this exhibition leaves no unanswered questions. God created all animals after their own kind, including birds, pterosaurs and dinosaurs and dromaeosaurs, which may or may not have had feathers. When the Flood came, they were all killed except for the ones that boarded the Ark. It is the Flood and the associated volcanic activity that killed, and so wonderfully fossilized, all these animals in the Liaoning area. They represent a clear archive of sudden death and burial in pooled, quiet water (the so-called ‘lake’ environment), where the sediments were fine and interbedded with volcanic ash, suitable for the fantastic preservation of the fossils. Immediately after burial, more energetic water flows brought in huge volumes of sediments which covered this exquisite archive, preserving it for the puzzlement of evolutionary paleontologists, and the delight and awe of Bible-believing Christians. After the Flood, pterosaurs, dinosaurs and birds emerged from the Ark in the Middle East to make a new home in the dramatically changed post-Flood world. The environment and circumstances, however, obviously favoured the birds and mammals, while the dinosaurs and pterosaurs became extinct some time later.

References

  1. The colourful reconstruction of the Pterorhynchus (flying reptile) shows a yellow stripped skull crest, and the caption to the exhibit affirms that the colour patterns were preserved. However, information from <www.palaeo.gly.bris.ac.uk/palaeofiles/lagerstatten/Liaoning/taphonomy.html> states that the colours were not preserved. Whom should we believe? Return to text.
  2. Johanson, Donald C. and Maitland Edey, Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, Simon & Schuster, New York, pp. 258–258, 1981. Return to text.

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