The Changing Science of Just-About-Birds and Not-Quite-Birds


When people say that scientists are always changing their minds, it’s usually meant as a slight. How can anyone trust conclusions that are so prone to revision? But the fluctuating nature of science is a feature not a bug. It means that our knowledge of the world is constantly being updated in the face of new evidence.

For example, scientists from the University of Bristol recently showed that the evolutionary relationships between different dinosaurs arecontinuously changing in the light of new fossils. It’s a bit of an etch-a-sketch science—no sooner are family trees drawn before they’re re-drawn again. Even well-known transitions are prone to big shake-ups.

Consider the origin of birds. There is now overwhelming evidence thatbirds evolved from small predatory dinosaurs. Hundreds of stunning fossils illustrate the transitions from dino-fuzz to flight feathers and fromgrasping arms to flapping wings. The avialans (all birds, living and extinct) fit within a group of dinosaurs called the Paraves, which also includesdromaeosaurids (sickle-clawed predators like Velociraptor andDeinonychus); and troodontids (large-brained predators like Troodon).

But which of these creatures were the first birds, and which specific group of paravians were their closest relatives? That’s still the subject of heavy debate.

The famous Archaeopteryx, with its winged arms, clawed hands, toothed jaws, and long bony tail, was one of the first fossils to suggest a link between birds and other dinosaurs. Since its discovery in 1861, it has been widely heralded as one of the earliest birds (avialans). But two years ago, Chinese palaeontologist Xing Xu cast its pivotal position into doubt.

Written By: Ed Yong
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  1. The way evolution works, taxonomy is necessarily muddy. It’s precisely because creationism is wrong that debates like this are commonplace. Creationists would have you believe Archaeopteryx has to either definitely be a bird or definitely not be one, but it has a smorgasbord of features that makes that kind of pretense rather silly.

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