Archaeopteryx always makes for good origins fodder. Here is a
fossil which certainly looks like a "reptile with feathers". So let me
add my opinion to the debate which surronds this famous critter.
First things first. What ever happened to Hoyle's notion about this
fossil being a hoax? Did they ever scrape some feather
impressioned limestone and date it? Just curious.
Now, there is one thing that truly strikes me as odd about this
fossil, and it is odd no matter what angle you are coming from. Here
is a skeletal system which looks quite reptilian. Yet it's feathers
are flight feathers which are exactly like those of a modern bird.
Now you would expect some more primitive version of the feathers,
but it seems as if the feather evolution was not coupled to the
skeletal evolution (if it was, it was a very loose coupling). For here
we have an organism, practically at the base of the bird line, and
guess what, modern feathers have already been evolved. Not much
else has, but flight feathers have. I find this to be quite perplexing.
Anyway, what do I think of Archie? So far, I have heard two
possible alternatives : God made him like this or Archie is a bird
ancestor. Do these exhaust the possible explanations? Perhaps
Archie is an example of convergent evolution which has nothing to do
with bird ancestory. And Archie, as a hopping, feathered, reptile
was simply outcompeted by true birds and thus went extinct. Who
knows? But this certainly appears plausible to me.
The biggest strike against Archie, as I see it, is the fossil record.
We have six fossils of Archie, all from Germany (do they all have
feather impressions?). Back in 1978, Jensen discovered a modern
bird femur which dated at the same time as Archie (Science 199,
p284). But a mere bird femur is easy to ignore, especially in light of
the impressive skeletal impressions of Archie.
But today, Archie is challenged again. This time, by Protoavis,
discovered and described by Sankar Chatterjee (Science News, vol
140, pp104-105). This creature, as judged by it's skull and many
other features, is far more bird-like than Archie. In the skull alone,
Chatterlee notes 23 features which are birdlike. Many are lacking in
reptiles/dinosaurs. Most importantly, Protoavis dates at 225
million years, about 75 million years before Archie and at the time
of the appearence of the first dinosaurs.
Now, the paleontological community has not been so accepting of
this critter. Here is where the human side of science shines forth
brilliantly! Let's set the stage. Archie is a premier transitional
fossil. Much has been written about it, and many theories (birds
evolved from dinosaurs) have been based on it. Because of this,
I say that Archie has a good deal of what I call "falsification-
insulation". That is, so much would fall if Archie was pulled out
that there is great resistence for pulling Archie out.
Now note the argument against Protoavis (listed in Science News):
1. Paleontologist Jacques Gauthier: "It's crushed, smooshed and in
2. Gauthier says this creature could actually be a reconstruction of
different kinds of animals mixed together.
3. Reason #2 is also voiced by Storrs Olson. Olson notes that these
bones were found to be unarticulated, so they had to be put back
together, and when you put things like this together, you can mix up
different animal bones.
4. Olson also questions Chatterjee's preparation of this fossil and
claims he could have made mistakes.
Now I don't know about you, but these arguments ALL sound like they
come from a creationist!!! Thus, either the creationists have a point
in their complaints about the interpretations which surround certain
fossils, or Archie is really in trouble here.
What is more, it looks like where you sit on the fence concerning the
origins of birds plays a large role in how you "see" this fossil, thus
underscoring the inherent subjectivity in fossil evidence.
For example, those who reject the dinosaur-bird theory (like Larry
Martin) are far more likely to accept Protoavis. Those who hold to
this theory are far more skeptical. Remember Gauthier? He accepts
this theory and says that even if Chatterjee is correct, "It doesn't
alter the idea that birds are theropod dinosaurs one wit" He says
that it simply shifts the chain of events earlier in time. He notes
that if Protoavis was a bird, then theropod dinosaurs must have
evolved even earlier. Shades of unfalsifiability! If evidence runs
counter to your theory, simply recast the theory to bypass the
So this leads me to ask a question to all the "falsifiabilty" people.
What would it take to falsify the notion that Archie is a transitional
creature between birdies and reptiles?