July 27, 2011 at 1:01 PM ET
The newfound fossil of a 155 million-year-old feathered dinosaur has led scientists to claim that Archaeopteryx, the species long held forth as the "oldest bird," is no bird at all.
Chinese researchers made the claim in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, and an outside expert says the study "is likely to rock the paleontological community for years to come." Ohio University paleontologist Lawrence Witmer noted that the latest research, focusing on a fossil species dubbed Xiaotingia zhengi, comes 150 years after the discovery of Archaeopteryx, which marked a milestone in the study of the origin of birds.
"It's fitting that 150 years later, Archaeopteryx is right back at center stage," Witmer told me.
Xiaotingia was found by a collector in China's Liaoning Province, a hotbed for feathered-dino fossils, and sold to the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature. Paleontologists led by Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences analyzed the fossil's skeletal measurements in detail and fed them into a computer database with measurements from 89 fossilized dinosaur and bird species, including Archaeopteryx.
Without Xiaotingia, the computer analysis put Archaeopteryx on the evolutionary line leading to modern-day birds. But when Xiaotingia was included, Archaeopteryx was placed in a group of birdlike dinosaurs known as deinonychosaurs. The differences had to do with details such as the shape of the wishbone and the skull's snout.
Archaeopteryx was about the size of a modern-day crow, and Xiaotingia was as big as a chicken.
"If you just looked at Xiaotingia, you'd say, 'Oh, boy, another little feathered dinosaur from China,'" Thomas Holtz, a paleontologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who reviewed the study for Nature, told me. "In and of itself, it is not a particularly unusual animal. But the combination of traits, at least in their analysis, pulls Archaeopteryx over to the deinonychosaur side of things."
The researchers acknowledged that their reclassification was "only weakly supported by the available data," but they said this kind of fuzziness was to be expected when the fossils being analyzed are close to the common ancestor of now-extinct dinosaurs and modern birds. "This phenomenon is also seen in some other major transitions, including the origins of major mammalian groups," they wrote.
Witmer agreed: "We're looking at an origin, and consequently it's going to be messy."
The 150 million-year-old Archaeopteryx fossil, which was discovered in southern Germany in 1861, was long seen as the oldest evidence of a bird species because the rocky imprint bore traces of feathers. But over the past decade or two, many dinosaur fossils have been found with evidence of feathers — to the extent that some scientists have been able to figure out how the feathers were colored. As a result, some researchers have argued for years that Archaeopteryx should be reclassified.
In the past, creationists have used Archaeopteryx in their arguments against evolutionary theory, contending that birds always existed in their feathered form and did not evolve from dinosaurs. Evolution's critics may try to spin these latest findings to their advantage as well, Witmer said.
"It may well be they're going to suggest that we evolutionists don't know what we're doing," he told me. "In reality, it's just the opposite. It just shows what evolution is all about. A prediction of evolutionary theory is that it should be really hard for us to figure out what's going on in an origin."
Archaeopteryx's dethronement means the title of "oldest bird" could fall to other ancient species, such as Epidexipteryx hui, Jeholornis and Sapeornis, Witmer said. "They're not exactly household names," he noted. "These new characters have been known only for 10 years or less." Archaeopteryx, meanwhile, would be lumped in with Xiaotingia as well as another feathered-dino species called Anchiornis huxleyi.
The renewed debate over Archaeopteryx's classification is far from finished. Holtze said he knew some researchers who were inclined to go with a completely different classification scheme, which would put the deinonychosaurs along with Archaeopteryx on the evolutionary line leading to modern-day birds.
The debate could also require a rethinking of how birds arose, and how features such as feathers and flight developed. Holtz said some paleontologists have suggested that Archaeopteryx was not a particularly good flier, and putting it in the deinonychosaur category would make more sense on that score. It may turn out that deinonychosaurs gradually evolved from so-so fliers into feathered but flightless animals. "They would have been nasty predatory analogs to ostriches," Holtz said.
Holtz acknowledged that Archaeopteryx "has been our image of what early birds are like, for the historical reason that it's been known for 150 years as having all these feathers." The fact that the fossil was found just two years after Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species" added to its image as an evolutionary icon. A dramatic change in that image might come as another scientific shock to folks who are already being told that there's no such thing as a brontosaur, and that Pluto no longer ranks among the solar system's major planets.
"To which I say, 'Get over it!'" Holtz said. "Science is about changing ideas based on evidence, not about ignoring evidence to conform to our comfortable ideas."
More about birds and dinosaurs:
In addition to Xu, the authors of the Nature report, "An Archaeopteryx-like Theropod From China and the Origin of Avialae," include Hailu You, Kai Du and Fenglu Han. Witmer is the author of a commentary in Nature titled "An Icon Knocked From its Perch."
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