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Flying Dinosaurs

Archaeopteryx - is this bird a fraud?

copyright Christopher Majka
all rights reserved. Reproduced from New Brunswick Naturalist, 1992

"He is certainly a wise man who to-day can tell a bird from a reptile, with only the fragments of an ancient form before him."
-- O. C. Marsh, New York Herald, January 19th, 1890
Ever wonder why the dinosaurs vanished? Bet you'd be surprised if I told you they hadn't. "What!", you quickly think, "Has Roy Mackal finally discovered Mokele-Mbembe in the Congo? Has the Lake Utopia monster returned?" No, not by a long shot. The dinosaur I'm talking about is at this very moment in your back yard. Visions of Tyrannosaurus running rampant through the vegetable patch. Don't believe me? Go ahead -- take a look. I'll wait.

O.K., what did you see. Aha -- I thought so. A bird, right? It may come as a slight surprise but there are paleontologists who believe that the last of the dinosaurs are out there cavorting in the trees and they are called -- you guessed it -- birds! The subject of this essay is precisely one such bird/dinosaur -- and one which is particularly significant and controversial.

Archaeopteryx lithographica was the name which geologist Sir Richard Owen gave in 1863 to one of the most unusual specimens which he was to acquire in his career as Curator of the British Museum of Natural History. It was indeed an irony that Owen, who was an opponent of Darwin's and espoused a kind neo-Platonic concept of nature with species as static archetypes, should be the person who described the creature which has come to be used as one of the prime examples of evolution.

The skeleton of Archaeopteryx which Owen described had been discovered in beds of so-called 'Solnhofen Limestone' near the Bavarian town of Pappenheim in 1861. In fact an Archaeopteryx skeleton had been found earlier, in 1855, however paleontologist von Meyer had not recognized it as such and had described it as a pterosaur, Pterodactylus crassipes. Other specimens are a feather which was discovered in 1861, and skeletons found in 1877, 1951 and 1956.

Ever since its description by Owen, Archaeopteryx has occupied the limelight in many battles, skirmishes, and full-scale wars between the many factions of biologists, paleontologists, and fundamentalists trying to establish their own versions of the creation of the world. Fittingly, Archaeopteryx still continues to be the subject of much controversy and debate even today.

For those unfamiliar with the the beast (I'll shy away from using the word 'bird' for the time being!) the accepted interpretation has Archaeopteryx as a feathered crow-sized creature with a long tail. The tail, unlike those of modern birds which consist solely of feathers, was a long bone, muscle, ligament affair clad with feathers. In common with birds like the South American Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) the 'wrists' of the wings terminated with long reptilian claws. Rather than a beak, as such it had a scaled snout complete with teeth. All these features (and other skeletal ones) point to its reptilian origins. It is quite unlike reptiles in having (of course!) feathers, wings, a wishbone and a perching foot. This amalgam of avian and reptilian features made it the perfect candidate for a 'missing link' between the two groups. Its discovery was used by Darwinists as 'proof' of the theory of evolution and an example of how seemingly separate forms had once had intermediary links between them.

Now thus far I haven't told you much more than you might recall from your high-school biology classes but Archaeopteryx has a few tricks yet up its feathered sleeve. Creationists were quick to rally and objected that although this was indeed a vanished form lost in the antediluvian past, it was no missing link. It was quite different than either reptiles of birds. In effect they demanded of the evolutionists even further 'missing links' be discovered. Owen himself wrote:

"How is it if all animals have proceeded by gradual modification from a common stock, that great gaps exist?"
T. H. Huxley, a prominent defender of evolution in the 19th century replied thus:
"We, who believe in evolution, reply that these gaps were once non-existent; that the connecting forms existed in previous epochs of the world's history, but they have died out."
Thus, rather that providing and open and shut proof of evolution, the discovery of Archaeopteryx made the controversy even more heated. Some of these squabbles have faded to silence in the past. Since the time of Huxley the evolutionary relationship of birds to reptiles has been well established and is now accepted by the overwhelming majority of informed opinion. Archaeopteryx , however continues to be the fulcrum of debate.

One such issue concerns the question of whether Archaeopteryx could actually fly? What, you might ask; can a bird fly? Is the Pope Polish? Well in the case of Archaeopteryx the case is a little more complicated. Archaeopteryx did not have the keeled breastbone, characteristic of todays birds, to which fasten their flight muscles. Combined with its heavy tail, and claws this does not auger well for flight. Other researchers have noted its greatly thickened and fused collarbone which could have served as an alternative site for muscle attachment. The jury is still out as to whether Archaeopteryx could simply glide from tree to tree, much like todays flying squirrels, or whether it was capable of true flight. In any event it seems that, even at best, Archaeopteryx was not a skilled aerialist.

An even more potent and acrimonious dispute has broken out with respect to Archaeopteryx in the pages of todays scientific journals. The central figure in this dispute is another well known peer of the British House of Lords, Sir Fred Hoyle. This name might already be familiar to many of you but in a different context. Fed Hoyle is a famous British astronomer and long-time proponent of the 'steady-state' theory of the universe (as opposed to the 'big bang' theory -- a scientific dispute which we will not go into here!)

In an article in the British Journal of Photography (Vol. 132, March 1985) Hoyle and associates make the rather astonishing claim that Archaeopteryx is a forgery! From examining the specimen in the British Museum and from photographs which they took of it they argue that the impressions of feathers in the stone were faked. They claim that someone must have made a cement like matrix which was applied to the stone into which chicken feathers were then pressed in order to leave the impressions of plumage! They further claim that the sedimentary textures of the slab and counterslab are different and that on a fine scale these two slabs do not fit 'hand-in-glove' they way in which they ought.

These are astonishing claims and they have been have been reported through the world's media (Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Guardian, The Times [all in London], Dagens Nyheter [Stockholm], New York Times, etc.). It is a curious dispute because the principal exponents of this view are not paleontologists. Hoyle is an astronomer, his colleague Chandra Wickramasinghe is an astrophysicist and Lee Spetner is an Israeli physicist. It calls into question a major piece of fossil evidence regarding evolution and imputes the integrity of Sir Robert Owen, one of the major pillars of British paleontology, who, it is alleged, must have been privy to the hoax. Why Owen, who was an opponent of Darwin and evolution, should have wanted to do something of this sort also boggles the imagination. If such an allegation were true it would be even more astonishing than the expose of the Piltdown Man.

The authoritative rebuttal of this view comes in a paper published in Science (Vol 232, 2 May, 1986, pp. 622-625) by Alan Charig, Frank Greenaway, Angela Milner, Cyril Walker and Peter Whybrow unequivocally entitled Archaeopteryx Is Not a Forgery. Their arguments are technical and detailed but in essence they show that there is no evidence of such 'doctoring' of the slab; that mineral-filled hairline fissures extend from the feathers and into the bones of the animal rpoving that they are from one and the same source; that minerological evidence conclusively shows that the slab and counterslab connect together and that differences in sedimentary texture between the two are perfectly in keeping with such deposits and the ways in which they are created. They point out that in addition there are remains of five Archaeopteryx discovered at different times and places and under well documented conditions. In only one of these specimens is the state of preservation such that the presence of feathers cannot unequivocally be established.

Others might be deterred but Hoyle and Wickramasinghe have replied with Archaeopteryx, The Primordial Bird a book published in London by Christopher Davis in 1987. In it they repeat their claims in addition to advancing the notion that evolution proceeds in sudden fits and starts as a result of genetic storms of viruses carried to the earth from outer space. "Egads," you might think "where is the line between science and science fiction?" Molecular biologist have reacted with embarrassment to these mystical outpourings and have replied that there exists not an iota of evidence to support these wild theories. In a review of the book in New Scientist (10 September, 1987) Beverly Halstead writes;

"This contribution [is] one of the most despicable pieces of writing it has ever been my misfortune to read. It displays utter contempt for minimal standards of scholarship ... [and] will remain for a long time a stain on the reputation of both authors."
Not an ambivalent response.

Archaeopteryx meanwhile continues to be the subject of serious scholarship and causes dispute among scientists who do not question its authenticity. In an article published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society in 1984 (Vol. 82, pp. 119-158) and called "The avian relationship of Archaeopteryx and the origin of birds", R. A. Thulborn argues that Archaeopteryx is not, in fact, a bird at all! From careful morphological analysis of birds, dinosaurs, reptiles and Archaeopteryx he concludes that Archaeopteryx is no more closely related to birds than several types of theropod dinosaurs including tyrannosaurids and ornithomimids. He argues that Archaeopteryx is not an ancestral bird and transfers it to the dinosaur suborder Theropoda. He believes that there may not, in fact, be any 'missing link' between dinosaurs and birds to be discovered in the fossil record but that birds may have arisen by means of a 'saltative' change between the two groups. By this he means a sudden and abrupt evolutionary change rather than the gradual and progressive kind advocated by Darwin.

Taking the opposite view is Joel Cracraft in an article in Paleobiology (Vol. 12(4): pp. 383-389) called The origin and early diversification of birds. Using techniques of so-called 'numerical taxonomy' his research indicates that Archaeopteryx is indeed the 'sister-group' for all remaining birds. Numerical taxonomy provides a mathematical model of kinship between groups based upon an analysis of different morphological features. It aims to be a more 'objective' way of representing evolutionary relations than conventional taxonomy. An 'evolutionary tree' of birds as it emerges from his analysis of 73 different anatomical features of birds is shown below.

So, in the end, what is Archaeopteryx ? Was it a theropod dinosaur or a bird? Could it fly or not? Is it a crucial missing-link or a bizarre offshoot? A legitimate fossil or an artful hoax? The answers to these questions are far from complete but I'll bet that Archaeopteryx will continue to provoke curiosity and debate for a long time to come yet.

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