Is Archaeopteryx a feathered dinosaur?
Practically all paleontologists think of Archaeopteryx as the first bird or the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. The fossil is used as a showcase for evolution.
However, Chinese paleontologists now challenge this classification, and instead make a case that Archaeopteryx is a feathered theropod dinosaur.1 This belief is based on the finding of an Archaeopteryx-like fossil in China called Xiaotingia zhengi (figure 1), the affinity of which is supposedly with the early theropod dinosaurs and feathered dinosaurs. The new fossil is said to resemble theropod dinosaurs and, just like Archaeopteryx, it has teeth, claws on its wings, and a vertebrate tail. But the new fossil still has many features of birds, such as: feathers; small size; boomerang-shaped wishbone; and features of enantiornithines, unique fossil birds.
Based on questionable phylogenetic analysis
To back up their claim, the Chinese paleontologists have used numerical phylogenetic analysis, cladistics, that compares anatomical features of many individuals. The idea is that the more similar the fossils, the closer they are related by evolution. But the researchers also admit: “It should be noted that our phylogenetic hypothesis is only weakly supported by the available data.”2 They go on to add that other phylogenetic analyses have demonstrated just the opposite, that Archaeopteryx is a basal bird: “Although Archaeopteryx is placed within the Avialae [basal birds] by nearly all numerical phylogenetic studies…”3 In order to attempt to weaken the cladistics data that says Archaeopteryx is a bird, the Chinese paleontologists claim that some of the traits used in the cladistics analysis are questionable. So, it seems that the classification of Archaeopteryx and Xiaotingia zhengi depends upon the traits selected for the cladistics analysis.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that cladistics analysis has been claimed to be subjective by some researchers.4,5 This new designation for Archaeopteryx supports this belief. Cladistics is a poor tool by which to classify unique fossils as feathered dinosaurs,6,7 or any fossil for that matter.8 Michael Balter, in Science, acknowledges that the Chinese paleontologists admitted to the weak statistical connection for claiming Archaeopteryx is a feathered dinosaur, but adds: “And other researchers say such ambiguities in classification are not surprising.”9 This shows the widespread ambiguity of cladistics analysis.
The claim is controversial
This new designation of Archaeopteryx is of course based on the opinion of four Chinese paleontologists, who are challenging a major icon of evolution. Lawrence Witmer states:
“For the past 150 years, the famous feathered fossil species from Bavaria in Germany has been a symbol of evolution, a textbook example of a transitional fossil and, above all, the oldest and most primitive bird. … The finding is likely to be met with considerable controversy (if not outright horror), in part because of the historical and sociological significance that Archaeopteryx has held, but also because it may mean that much of what we thought we knew about the origin and early evolution of birds will need to be re-evaluated.”10
Could ‘feathered dinosaurs’ be unique fossil birds?
Because of all the subjectivity, I lean toward the idea of several ornithologists that ‘feathered dinosaurs’, those with true feathers and not probable collagen fibers,11 are really unique, fossil birds.12–14 Some of the feathered dinosaurs were first classified as birds, showing the equivocal nature of the classification.15 Many of the true extinct birds found in China have unique features that are shared by some dinosaurs, but they are still birds. True birds are also found with so-called feathered theropods, suggesting that maybe all the animals in the location are types of birds. And even one cladistics analysis on the subject, if it can be trusted, concluded that ‘feathered dinosaurs’ are in fact birds.4
- Xu, X., You, H., Du, K., and Han, F., An Archaeopteryx-like theropod from China and the origin of Avialae, Nature 475:465–470, 2011. Return to text.
- Xu et al., ref. 1, p. 467. Return to text.
- Xu et al., ref. 1, p. 469. Return to text.
- James, F.C. and Pourtless IV, J.A., Cladistics and the origin of birds: a review and two new analyses, Ornithological Monographs 66:1–78, 2009. Return to text.
- Jenner, R.A., The scientific status of metazoan cladistics: why current research practice must change, Zoologica Scripta 33(4):293–310, 2004. Return to text.
- Oard, M.J., Did birds evolve from dinosaurs? J. Creation 25(2):22–31, 2011. Return to text.
- Oard, M.J., Dinosaur Challenges and Mysteries: How the Genesis Flood Makes Sense of Dinosaur Evidence Including Tracks, Nests, Eggs, and Scavenged Bones, Creation Book Publishers, Atlanta, GA, pp. 144–155, 2011. Return to text.
- Doyle, S., Cladistics, evolution and the fossils, J. Creation 25(2):32–39, 2011. Return to text.
- Balter, M., Bad birthday news for first bird? Science 333:511, 2011. Return to text.
- Witmer, L.M., An icon knocked from its perch, Nature 475:458, 2011. Return to text.
- Oard, ref. 6, p. 24. Return to text.
- Feduccia, A., Lingham-Soliar, T. and Hinchliffe, J.R., Do feathered dinosaurs exist? Testing the hypothesis on neontological and paleontological evidence, J. Morphology 266:125–166, 2005. Return to text.
- Feduccia, A., Martin, L.D. and Tarsitano, S., Perspectives in ornithology and Archaeopteryx 2007: Quo Vadis? Auk 124(2):273–280, 2007. Return to text.
- Jones, T.D., Farlow, J.O, Ruben, J.A., Henderson, D.M. and Hillenius, W.J., Cursoriality in bipedal archosaurs, Nature 406:716–717, 2000. Return to text.
- Xu et al., ref. 1, p. 466. Return to text.
- Oard, ref. 6, p. 26. Return to text.