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Supposed ‘icon of evolution’, Archaeopteryx, was “dressed for flight” in modern, probably black, feathers

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First published: 31 July 2012 (GMT+10)
Re-featured on homepage: 27 May 2021 (GMT+10)
School and university students could be forgiven for thinking that Archaeopteryx is pivotal evidence for dino-to-bird evolution, given the obligatory photos of fossils like this one adorning the pages of their science textbooks. The stark reality, however, is that even some leading evolutionists do not regard it as such.

According to a paper published in Nature Communications earlier this year, “Archaeopteryx has been regarded as an icon of evolution ever since its discovery from the Late Jurassic limestone deposits of Solnhofen, Germany in 1861.”1

Certainly Archaeopteryx has been continually paraded as an ‘icon of evolution’ in biology textbooks and the like. And the Brown University press release drawing attention to the Nature Communications paper was no exception, calling Archaeopteryx a “winged dinosaur”.2 However, as we have written many times (e.g. see Bird evolution flies out the window), there are even leading evolutionists who most certainly do not regard Archaeopteryx as an ‘icon of evolution’. That’s because the facts about Archaeopteryx really offer no joy to anyone hungry for evidence supporting the evolutionary paradigm.

For example, as paleo-ornithologist Alan Feduccia, Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina and a world authority on fossil birds, sums it up:

“Paleontologists have tried to turn Archaeopteryx into an earth-bound, feathered dinosaur. But it’s not. It is a bird, a perching bird. And no amount of ‘paleobabble’ is going to change that.”3

Note that Feduccia is an evolutionist himself, not a creationist (see Feduccia vs Creationists). And the ‘dating’ of Archaeopteryx by evolutionists’ own reckoning puts it millions of years after the creatures it supposedly gave rise to! (E.g. see New four-winged feathered dinosaur?) As Feduccia likes to quip, “You can’t be older than your grandfather.”

However, it seems that Ryan Carney and his co-authors of the recent Nature Communications paper are oblivious of all that. Their findings are couched in the usual evolutionary ‘spin’ about Archaeopteryx that one has come to expect in the Nature stable of publications.4 But that’s despite their own research findings pointing to Archaeopteryx having modern feathers in line with the biblical account of birds having been designed for flight from the very first. Or, as the Brown University press release put it, “Archaeopteryx’s feather structure is identical to that of living birds” and it was “dressed for flight”.

Carney and his co-workers examined a well-preserved Archaeopteryx feather, ‘dated’ as being 150 million years old. Contrary to previous interpretations, they determined that it was an upper major primary covert (i.e. one of the feathers that cover the primary and secondary wing feathers that birds use in flight). But the really landmark breakthrough made by the researchers was the discovery of fossilized colour-imparting melanosomes; the pigment-producing parts of a cell.

The impetus to search for melanosomes in Archaeopteryx fossils came following co-author Jakob Vinther’s discovery in 2006 of melanin preserved in the ink sac of a fossilized squid. (See Fossil squid ink that still writes!) “This made me think that melanin could be fossilized in many other fossils such as feathers,” explained Vinther. “I realized I had opened a whole new chapter of what we can do to understand the nature of extinct feathered dinosaurs and birds.”

(Well, extinct dinosaurs and birds, maybe. But as for feathered dinosaurs, the claimed ‘evidence’ to date is far from convincing. See ‘Feathered’ dinos: no feathers after all!)

Sure enough, Vinther’s hunch proved right in Archaeopteryx’s case. Although the tiny melanosomes (about 1 micron long and 250 nanometres wide) had long been seen in other fossil feathers, they had not been recognized as such, having been misidentified as bacteria. Carney and Vinther and their colleagues used a very powerful type of scanning electron microscope to locate patches of hundreds of melanosomes encased in the Archaeopteryx feather fossil. They then sought to better define the melanosomes’ structure by examining the fossilized barbules of the feather. (Barbules are the tiny appendages on feathers that form a microscopic network of hooks and grooves which overlap and interlock to give a feather rigidity and strength. During preening, the network of barbules separated as the bird runs its beak along the feather re-interlock behind the preening bill like a zipper.) Their unequivocal finding: “The barbules and the alignment of melanosomes within them are identical to those found in modern birds.”

Once again, note what the researchers have themselves observed and reported: Archaeopteryx’s feather structure is identical to that of living birds. And when they compared the melanosomes to those of 87 species of living birds, they concluded that the colour imparted by Archaeopteryx’s melanosomes was highly likely (“with 95% certainty”) to have been black. That’s why their press release said Archaeopteryx was “dressed for flight”:

“The color and parts of cells that would have supplied pigment are evidence that wing feathers were rigid and durable, traits that would have helped Archaeopteryx to fly.”

However, the researchers were at pains to say that the pigment doesn’t prove that Archaeopteryx could fly, as it could equally have served to regulate body temperature, act as camouflage or for sexual display. And they were very eager to put an evolutionary ‘spin’ on the origin of the pigmentation. As Ryan Carney said:

“We can’t say it’s proof that Archaeopteryx was a flier. But what we can say is that in modern bird feathers, these melanosomes provide additional strength and resistance to abrasion from flight, which is why wing feathers and their tips are the most likely areas to be pigmented. With Archaeopteryx, as with birds today, the melanosomes we found would have provided similar structural advantages, regardless of whether the pigmentation initially evolved for another purpose.”

Doesn’t it make more sense to conclude that the reason that melanosomes in Archaeopteryx look like they had a purpose was because they were put there by a purposeful Designer? Archaeopteryx had ‘modern’ feathers and melanosomes not because it “would have been advantageous during this early evolutionary stage of dinosaur flight” as the evolutionary researchers tried to ‘spin’ in their ‘paleobabble’, but rather was “dressed for flight” because Someone, the Master Designer, dressed it. The God of the Bible, no less. As Romans 1:20 says, anyone who denies His handiwork really is “without excuse”.

References

  1. Carney, R., Vinther, J., Shawkey, M., D’Alba, L. and Ackermann, J., New evidence on the colour and nature of the isolated Archaeopteryx feather, Nature Communications 3, Article number 637, doi: 10.1038/ncomms1642, 24 January 2012. Return to text.
  2. Brown University News and Events: Winged dinosaur Archaeopteryx dressed for flight, http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2012/01/archaeopteryx, 24 January 2012. Return to text.
  3. Feduccia, A.; cited in: V. Morell, Archaeopteryx: Early Bird Catches a Can of Worms, Science 259(5096):764–65, 5 February 1993. Return to text.
  4. Walker, T., An open letter to the editors of Nature, creation.com/an-open-letter-to-the-editors-of-nature, 4 July 2007. Return to text.

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