Feathers will fly: Archaeopteryx relegated

A not unimaginative reconstruction of Archaeopteryx. Image via Wikipedia

This year, 2011, is the 150th anniversary of the first Archaeopteryx specimen being unearthed from the famous Solnhofen  limestone lagerstätte. With its feathered, lizard-like tail; two-clawed, stubby wings; a bill-shaped muzzle with teeth but no keratin coating; feet capable of perching and unlike those of small dinosaurs; a ‘wishbone’ and lightweight bones, Archaeopteryx was just the half-and-half missing link in the fossil record so desperately needed to support Darwin’s Origin of Species, published two years beforehand.  It has remained controversial ever since, even having been claimed to be a forgery by such luminaries as cosmologist Fred Hoyle in 1985, despite its superbly preserved intricacies and the existence at the time of 6 slightly different specimens from the same source some discovered long after Hoyle’s supposed master craftsman must have died. Creationists soon after the first discovery claimed it was simply a bird created on a Friday together with fish (Genesis 1:20) and must have predated dinosaurs by a day, as they were created on the 6th Day along with all the ‘cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth’ (Genesis 1:24-31). That scurrilous sect will certainly leap gleefully on the new discovery of a feathered dinosaur from the ever productive Late Jurassic Tiaojishan Formation in NE China (Xu, X. et al.2011. An Archaeopteryx-like theropod from China and the origin of the Avialae. Nature, v. 475, p. 465-470) because ironically, by itself, it could be said to be a missing link too.

Archaeopteryx lithographica, specimen displaye...
Cast of the first-described Archaeopteryx fossil. Image via Wikipedia

In fact, Xiaotingia zhengi possesses features very like those displayed by Archaeopteryx but convincingly close affinities to deinonychosaurian dinosaurs. The shared features show that neither is a bird (Avialae) and nor are they part of the clade that evolved to birds: they are part of the growing group of feathered dinosaurs that may well have glided or even flown. As Lawrence Witmer of Ohio University has observed (Witmer, L.M. 201. An icon knocked off its perch. Nature, v. 475, p. 458-459), ‘This finding is likely to be met with considerable controversy (if not outright horror)…’. However, Witmer still considers Archaeopteryx to have iconic status, indeed yet more, for its taxonomy and that of its related feathery dinosaurs provides compelling evidence that the origin and evolution of life was a ‘rather messy affair’. Undoubtedly, more feathered creatures hundreds of million years old will be unearthed; it is even possible that further finds will push the beast of Solnhofen back onto its avian perch. Let the celebrations begin!

Added 12 August 2011: Ironically, yesterday the German mint issued a €10 silver coin commemorating the 150th anniversary of the first discovery of Archaeopteryx, artwork of the skeleton with fully fledged arms on the reverse side of the coin compared with the stylised German eagle on the front. This event coincides with the greatest crisis facing the eurozone in its short history, though Germany still retains its ‘triple A’ financial status unlike France and the US. See: http://witmerlab.wordpress.com/2011/01/31/evolution-icon-archaeopteryx-turns-150-this-year-how-are-we-celebrating/