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


Published: 31 July 2012 (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”.


  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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Readers’ comments

Louis T.
It's really remarkable just how much information is ignored or skimmed over in this 'article'!

Has any creationist 'scientist' ever studied Archaeopteryx first hand? Or is it simply the case that you use other scientists research and only comment on those points which you can manage to find counter-arguments to?
Jonathan Sarfati
[Louis T. wrote] It's really remarkable just how much information is ignored or skimmed over in this 'article'!

[Jonathan Sarfati] It's really remarkable how fact-free our critics can be.

[LT] Has any creationist 'scientist' ever studied Archaeopteryx first hand?

[JS] I don't know about creationist-scarequote-scientists since I don't know any, but we do know that the real creationist scientist, of which there are too many to name, paleontologist Dr Joachim Scheven has indeed examined Archie first-hand. As we reported in Maintaining Creationist Integrity:

Dr Joachim Scheven, German creationist, paleontologist and ‘living fossil’ expert, personally examined the specimen, and was very amused at the notion that anyone could seriously think it were a forgery.

In any case, it's irrelevant. Few evolutionists have examined this creature first-hand either. We also haven't examined Antarctica first hand but we rely on reports that say it's freezing.

[LT] Or is it simply the case that you use other scientists research and only comment on those points which you can manage to find counter-arguments to?

[JS] All modern scientific research is based on previous reports. Sir Isaac Newton, a real creationist scientist not a scarequote scientist, commented that he was "standing on the shoulders of giants". And once it is published, it is the property of all, not just of atheistic evolutionists.

Dennis B.
I am continually amused by the manner in which theistic evolutionists and anti-Creationists respond to new information that serves to skewer their strongly held presumptions and conclusions. How quickly they (e.g. Jeff M. and Andrew K.) dart off into another area in order to avoid addressing the issue under discussion. I only wish they were more diligent in holding their own presumptive ideas to the same rigidly dogmatic boundaries of perfection that they always expect from those of us who differ with them.
Chris O.
Amazing how purported paleontological facts may change. In the early 1980s I took a crack at figuring out where Archaeopteryx might fit taxonomically. Back then, as now, I conclude that it was an extinct bird with a mosaic of reptilian-like features. Such a “curious mosaic”, as Stephen J. Gould labeled it, does not qualify for a “missing link” transitional form, for all of its key features are well-developed and highly specialized. A transitional form should be intermediate with less developed and more generalized characteristics.

However, back then the matter was not as clear as it seems to be today. Previously, it was widely believed that Archaeopteryx: (1) lacked a wishbone, (2) its vertebrae lacked pneumaticity, (3) its brain capacity was smaller and less bird-like, (5) lacked head feathers, and (4) bird-like melanosomes. With all of these features now conforming to the birds, the only significant reptilian-like feature not found in living birds is its unfused tail vertebrae. The claws on the forewing and fully socketed teeth are also interesting reptilian-like features, but are already found to some degree among birds. Thus, as a candidate for an evolutionary transitional form, Archaeopteryx no longer seems like much to write home about. Its status seems to be settling in as a far less drastic case of a “curious mosaic” than the duck-billed platypus (duck-like beak and feet and lays eggs like a bird; fur and mammary glands like a mammal; sonar like a whale or bat, and poison glands like a frog). A mosaic distribution of traits is characteristic of common design, not common ancestor.

Well done! Thanks so very much for sharing!
derek B.
I find it amusing how theistic evolutionists will accuse creationists of putting God in a box for believing God and what He tells us He did and how He did it. For a person to attempt to marry evolution with the Bible requires them to ‘reinterpret’ the Bible in order to fit in with what they believe that ‘science’ teaches. They cannot believe God that He did what He said because they believe science teaches differently—and yet the person who accepts and believes God at His word is the one placing God within a box? The reasoning of evolutionists never ceases to amaze me.
andrew K.
The article only addresses one aspect of Archaeopteryx which is its feathers.

There are a bunch of features that have been ignored that would place Archaeopteryx into the category of a dinosaur.

Two clear visible examples are the long bony tail and visible teeth. Plus all the more technical bone structure variations of the skeleton that place it closer to dinosaurs than birds.
Jonathan Sarfati
It’s not fair, although typical among our critics, to whinge about an article discussing one topic not to cover every other topic, even if other articles do cover those. The point of this article was that on the key feature of birds—feathers—Archaeopteryx was not transitional.

This is true of other key features, such as the unique avian lung design, bigger brain, inner ear, elliptical wings, and a wishbone—see Birds: fliers from the beginning.

Earlier articles have discussed teeth and tail, which are not unique to reptiles, e.g. Bird evolution flies out the window.
Andrew P.
Your articles are dynamite, don't ever stop.
Paul M.
What amazes me about Jeff M's comments and the comments of most theistic evolutionists is they are trying to reconcile the biblical account with a faulty scientific model.
I came to a creationist understanding of the Bible, not from reading the Bible and saying 'Oh, that's how it happened!' but from examining the claims of evolution against observable science and collected data.
I don't even call evolutionary theory stupid or unintelligent, its merely untenable or unsupported by scientific evidence! The acceptance in such a theory is because one is generally uninformed or they have a reason for accepting it.
Personally, I willfully try to gain my understanding from the Bible, but where I am unable to understand, I almost always allow my interpretation to 'fill the gaps' - by God's grace he will correct my errors!
The theistic evolutionist may excuse himself by interpreting the 'unknown how' of Scripture, such as 'how' Jesus caused a blind man to see, or 'how' He created life, but please don't use an unviable mechanism such as evolution, which falls down on its own merits!
I thank you Creation Ministries for providing such good resources for scientific evaluation of biblical and evolutionary theory. I enjoy reading them immensely, not only for pointing to the true origin of knowledge and truth (the Bible) but helping to 'crack open' my own distorted or uninformed thinking. In this goal we are all children before a mighty and gracious God.
Manfred P.
Dear David,
Thank you for your article on the 'Archaeopteryx'.
In one of mine wildlife books I came across a very similar bird of the Amazon Rain Forest. It is called 'Hoatzin' and looks remarkable like the Archaeopteryx. The article even refers to the lookalike of the Archaeopteryx. (World of Wildlife magazines) It only shows you there is nothing new under the sun.
Roy K.
What about the earlier feathered dinosaurs—Pedopenna and Anchiornis?
David Catchpoole
What about them? If you had searched our site, as per the feedback rules, then you might have found Anchiornis huxleyi: new four-winged feathered dino? showing that it just replaces one temporal problem with another. We can’t cover everything in a single article.
Susan W.
Wow! How can these scientists be so blind, and so willingly ignore the obvious, that we have a Creator? Thanks for the great work you are doing, you are a great blessing to me and my family! You are in my prayers daily.
Jeff M.
Dear David

Actually, it does not make more sense to conclude that melanosomes were put there by a purposeful designer. That is lazy, though no doubt convenient.

Doesn't it make more sense to conclude that He created the world as we see it today - evolution; speed of light; QED; AI etc etc and most definitely not as our equivalents 4000 years ago saw the world - and knew nothing beyond their narrow confines and tribal rules?

He is constantly teaching us and showing us his Glory. Come to terms with it I beg you - He does not want us to come to Him with our views narrowly confined to the past. He wants us to soar with the Glory we have discovered over the ages - that is the true measure of His might.

David Catchpoole
Dear Jeff

For the benefit of readers who may not be aware of your earlier correspondence with us (e.g. at Has the 'God particle' been found?), you wrote earlier to CMI's Dr Jonathan Sarfati (viewable at 'Feathered' dinos: no feathers after all!) in relation to Jesus' utterances:

"I guess you are right. I do disagree with Him."

Jeff, if you disagree with Christ, then you do NOT "have the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16) and while that condition persists you can never "be of one mind" with believers either (Romans 15:6, 1 Corinthians 1:10, 2 Corinthians 13:11).
What God has told us about what happened in the past is as true as what He has told us about what will happen in the future. Evolution denies both. (See e.g. The future—some issues for long-age Christians.) As long as you allow your thinking to be polluted by the world's teaching on past, present and future, the supposed 'Glory' you speak of Jeff is anything but the "pure and faultless" religion that is acceptable to God (James 1:27). To be a believer, one has to, well, believe what our Creator has said.

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