Famed fossil isn't a bird after all, analysis says

July 27, 2011 By MALCOLM RITTER , AP Science Writer
Famed fossil isn't a bird after all, analysis says (AP)
This artist's rendition released by Nature shows what scientists at Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing are dubbing "Xiaotingia zhengi." The discovery of its fossilized remains helped scientists propose an evolutionary tree that suggests archaeopteryx is not a bird. (AP Photo/Nature, Xing Lida and Liu Yi)

(AP) -- One of the world's most famous fossil creatures, widely considered the earliest known bird, is getting a rude present on the 150th birthday of its discovery: A new analysis suggests it isn't a bird at all.

Chinese scientists are proposing a change to the evolutionary family tree that boots Archaeopteryx off the "bird" branch and onto a closely related branch of birdlike dinosaurs.

Archaeopteryx (ahr-kee-AHP'-teh-rihx) was a crow-sized creature that lived about 150 million years ago. It had wings and , but also quite un-birdlike traits like teeth and a bony tail. Discovered in 1861 in Germany, two years after published "On the ," it quickly became an icon for evolution and has remained popular since.

The Chinese scientists acknowledge they have only weak evidence to support their proposal, which hinges on including a newly recognized dinosaur.

Other experts say the change could easily be reversed by further discoveries. And while it might shake scientific understanding within the bird lineage, they said, it doesn't make much difference for some other evolutionary questions.

Archaeopteryx dwells in a section of the that's been reshuffled repeatedly over the past 15 or 20 years and still remains murky. It contains the small, two-legged dinosaurs that took the first steps toward flight. Fossil discoveries have blurred the distinction between dinosaurlike and birdlike dinosaurs, with traits such as feathers and wishbones no longer seen as reliable guides.

"Birds have been so embedded within this group of small dinosaurs ... it's very difficult to tell who is who," said Lawrence Witmer of Ohio University, who studies early bird evolution but didn't participate in the new study.

The proposed reclassification of Archaeopteryx wouldn't change the idea that birds arose from this part of the tree, he said, but it could make scientists reevaluate what they think about evolution within the bird lineage itself.

"Much of what we've known about the early evolution of birds has in a sense been filtered through Archaeopteryx," Witmer said. "Archaeopteryx has been the touchstone... (Now) the centerpiece for many of those hypotheses may or may not be part of that ."

The new analysis is presented in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature by Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, and colleagues. They compared 384 specific anatomical traits of 89 species to figure out how the animals were related. The result was a tree that grouped Archaeopteryx with deinonychosaurs, two-legged meat-eaters that are evolutionary cousins to birds.

But that result appeared only when the analysis included a previously unknown dinosaur that's similar to Archaeopteryx, which the researchers dubbed Xiaotingia zhengi. It was about the size of a chicken when it lived some 160 million years ago in the Liaoning province of China, home to many feathered and early birds.

Julia Clarke of the University of Texas at Austin, who did not participate in the study, said the reclassification appeared to be justified by the current data. But she emphasized the study dealt with a poorly understood section of the evolutionary tree, and that more fossil discoveries could very well shift Archaeopteryx back to the "bird" branch.

Anyway, moving it "a couple of branches" isn't a huge change, and whether it's considered a bird or not is mostly a semantic issue that doesn't greatly affect larger questions about the origin of flight, she said.

Luis Chiappe, an expert in early bird evolution at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County who wasn't part of the new study, said he doesn't think the evidence is very solid.

"I feel this needs to be reassessed by other people, and I'm sure it will be," he said.

Explore further: Origin of birds confirmed by exceptional new dinosaur fossils


Related Stories

Origin of birds confirmed by exceptional new dinosaur fossils

September 25, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Chinese scientists today reveal the discovery of five remarkable new feathered dinosaur fossils which are significantly older than any previously reported. The new finds are indisputably older than Archaeopteryx, ...

Feathers too weak for early bird flight

May 13, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The evolution of flight took longer than previously thought with the ancestors of modern birds “rubbish” at flying, if they flew at all, according to a Manchester scientist.

Ancient Birds Flew On All-Fours

September 26, 2006

The earliest known ancestor of modern-day birds took to the skies by gliding from trees using primitive feathered wings on their arms and legs, according to new research by a University of Calgary paleontologist. In a paper ...

Inside the First Bird, Surprising Signs of a Dinosaur

October 8, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- The raptor-like Archaeopteryx has long been viewed as the archetypal first bird, but new research reveals that it was actually a lot less “bird-like” than scientists had believed.

Earliest toothless bird found

December 10, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new species of bird from the Cretaceous period in China has been identified. It had toothless upper and lower jaws, and provides significant information on the diversification in the evolution of birds ...

Recommended for you


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (5) Jul 27, 2011
it actually surprises and pleases me that the article goes on to put out that whether we call this thing a bird or not is largely a semantic issue, and not so much important to science since the general area it is in is about the same.

Well done for pointing out the voice of reason.
1.2 / 5 (55) Jul 27, 2011
Oh science, I think I'm going to puke. I feel so violated.

I was taught that archaeopteryx was a hoax in grade school and just took it for granted all this time. All these years my mind has been polluted with creationist propaganda and I didn't even know it. I actually feel kind of ill right now.

You monsters.
3 / 5 (2) Jul 27, 2011
I was in public grade school, in the deep south, long enough ago that the entire school would stand, hand to heart, sing the National Anthem, say the pledge of Allegiance and recite the Lord's Prayer.

We were not taught that archeopteryx was fake, our textbooks had the obligatory cranial reconstructions of various pre-humans that no longer exist (Peking Man, Java Man, Cro-magnon et al.), alongside old Neander.

Where and when did you attend scrool?
1 / 5 (53) Jul 27, 2011
Public school just North of the Mason/Dixon line. Recently enough that we didn't have to recite the Lord's Prayer thankfully. I do however remember singing My Country, 'Tis of Thee everyday during kindergarten.

I distinctly remember a teacher pushing a student against a wall and pressing his thumbs upwards into his armpits for allegedly "mumbling the pledge". His "mumbling" consisted of not saying "under god". The same teacher also taught intelligent design in an extremely dishonest fashion, presenting the big bang alongside long discredited theories while presenting intelligent design as "common sense". (This was a world history class. He's now the principal...)

I can recall very little talk of evolution in any of my classes. It was more of a "take it or leave it" sort of deal and never consisted of more than memorizing a few definitions to satisfy some curriculum.

Changing of allele frequency is known as _________.

Congrats you just passed the unit on evolution!
not rated yet Jul 27, 2011
@frank - Wow. I really want to know where you went to school. This was a public school north of the mason dixon line? I went to highschool in the late 90s which would have been around the same time as you in northern VA. It was an entirely different experience where I was than what you're laying out.

Was it in indiana, iowa, ohio??
not rated yet Jul 27, 2011
it actually surprises and pleases me that the article goes on to put out that whether we call this thing a bird or not is largely a semantic issue, and not so much important to science since the general area it is in is about the same.

Yeah, nothin' to see here people, move along.

There's been fuss for a long time about Archaeopteryx not really being an "ancestral" bird, being on a dead-end branch -- but big fat hairy (feathery?) deal, the beastie on the ancenstral line was no doubt something with considerable similarities to it.
not rated yet Jul 27, 2011
"I think Archaeopteryx 's placement was the result of both history and relatively poor sampling at the dinosaurbird transition," explains Xu.

"Because it has held the position as the most primitive bird for such a long time, I am kind of nervous about presenting this result," says Xu.

And Witmer also said:
" Archaeopteryx was a bird because it had feathers and nothing else had them. But then other animals started being found that had wishbones, three-fingered hands and feathers. Heck, even T. rex had a wishbone. So one by one we've learned Archaeopteryx 's uniquely avian traits weren't so unique. The writing was really on the wall,"

I felt the article here was a bit on the 'it will blow over' side of the debate. Could have been me.
not rated yet Jul 28, 2011
@shootist and @frank

You guys had to be rebels and individuals to survive that kind of crap without becoming flag carrying creationists yourselves.

I had to sing god save the queen in my primary and when it came to religious education I refused to accept any category and had to sit in class by myself. The teacher taught something about those subjects and did not seem to accept evolution but I never listened because it seemed like drivel to me also.

Luckily school is not the only place to learn.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 28, 2011
Wow! No derogatory comments from the creationalist rabble - this must be a first!

Seems that poor old Archaeopteryx is destined to continue haunting a no man's land on the dinosaur/avian evolutionary tree.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.