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Reason and Revelation Volume 21 #4

Archaeopteryx, Archaeoraptor, and the "Dinosaurs-to-Birds" Theory—[Part 1]

by  Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

This discovery at Solnhofen provided the ultimate gift of the evolutionary gods to scientists of the day who were searching diligently for something (anything!) in the fossil record that portrayed the combined traits of two distinct classes of animals.Archaeopteryx lithographica must have had a considerable impact on a society that already was discussing Darwin’s recent proposals regarding the theory of evolution. This “missing link” was the first real evidence that Darwinists felt supported their position of a transition from land-dwelling animals into birds. For over 100 years, evolutionists have considered Archaeopteryxthe transitional form that allowed land-dwelling animals finally to get off the ground. Today, practically all evolution-based science textbooks contain a breathtaking photographic reproduction and description of Archaeopteryx, with genealogical lines showing the descent of modern birds from this ancient “intermediate.”

However, this one “missing link”—which was supposed to revolutionize mankind’s understanding of bird evolution—ultimately created more problems for evolutionists than solutions. An ongoing debate as to whether or not this animal was merely a bird or a true intermediate has been continuing nonstop for over a century. And to add to the controversy, some scientists have raised questions publicly as to whether or not Archaeopteryx may even be a fraud. An examination into the history surrounding this creature provides an interesting case study in how evolutionary science works. Consider the following:

Archaeopteryx—Specimens, Features, and Feathers

According to paleontologists, the available fossils of Archaeopteryx reveal that it was a crow-sized animal that may have been able to fly, but probably not very far. Archaeopteryx had a wingspan of about 1.5 feet, was approximately 1 foot long from beak to tail, and likely weighed around 11 to 18 ounces. Compare the features of Archaeopteryx with modern-day birds (see table below). To date, there have been 7 specimens of Archaeopteryx found (not including the single feather). The following is a chronological description of each find:

The Feather

Found in 1860 near Solnhofen, the original Archaeopteryx feather was described by von Meyer in 1861. The surprise was the exacting detail of preservation in the fossil.

The London Specimen

Found in 1861 near Langenaltheim, this fossil of Archaeopteryx was announced the same year by von Meyer. This and the Berlin specimen are the best known of all the Archaeopteryx fossils. Eventually Carl Haberlein, an amateur fossilologist and local medical doctor, sold it to the British Museum.

The Berlin Specimen

Originally uncovered in 1877 near Blumenburg, this Archaeopteryx find was described by W. Dames in 1884. This is considered a better specimen than the London specimen, principally because it had a complete (albeit badly crushed) head. Carl Haberlein’s son, Ernst, eventually sold it to the Berlin Museum.

The Maxburg Specimen

Found in 1958 near Langenaltheim (like the London specimen), it was described in 1959 by Heller. The specimen is composed solely of the torso; currently, its whereabouts is unknown (it is thought to have been sold secretly after the death of its finder and owner, Eduard Opitsch).

The Haarlem or Teyler Specimen

This specimen actually was found near Reidenburg in 1855, five years prior to the feather. However it remained in a museum, classified as Pterodactylus crassipes by von Meyer. A re-examination of the fossil in 1970 by Ostrom revealed feathers and its true identity (1970, 170:537).

The Eichstatt Specimen

This specimen was found by Workerszell in 1951, and then described by Peter Wellnhofer of the Paleontological Museum of Munich in Germany. This is the smallest of the specimens, being about two-thirds the size of the others. Although it has many differences from other Archaeopteryx specimens, it still resides within A. lithographica.

The Solnhofen Specimen

Found in the 1960s near Eichstatt and described by Wellnhofer in 1988, initially this specimen was identified asCompsognathus, but later was reclassified as A. lithographica (see: Ostrom, 1975, 3:61; Gee, 1999, p. 180).

The Solnhofen-Aktein-Verein Specimen

In 1993, Wellnhofer described a new specimen, but the description is in German and the information is limited. This specimen has been classified as a new species, Archaeopteryx bavarica, and is reported to have a small, ossified sternum as well as distinct feather impressions.

Feathers Toothed jaw
Furcula or wishbone Long bony tail
Hallow bones Three claws on each wing
Pectoral girdle was similar Abdominal ribs (gastrula)
Pelvis and legs like a modern bird Flat sternum
  Less fusion of hand bones
  Small cranium
Comparison of Archaeopteryx features with those of modern-day birds

The Strange Case of the “Famous Forged Feathers”

Many evolutionists have regarded Archaeopteryx lithographica as one of the most important fossils ever discovered, and as a result it has been touted as the perfect example of evolution in action. However, to others the fossil is a perfect example of fraudin action, not evolution. One controversy swirls around the fact that many of the specimens do not show any feather impressions at all, and the two that have impressions both were sold to museums by the Haberlein family (who apparently also handled the single fossil feather). Karl Haberlein sold his fossil in 1861 to the British Museum for 600 pounds, and his son Ernst sold the second one to the Berlin Museum in 1877 for 36,000 gold marks. Some have suggested that this fossil find is nothing more than a small dinosaur that had feather imprints placed on it after it was discovered. In speaking of Archaeopteryx in 1975, John Ostrom wrote:

...these specimens are not particularly like modern birds at all. If feather impressions had not been preserved in the London and Berlin specimens, they [the other specimens—BH/BT] never would have been identified as birds. Instead, they would unquestionably have been labeled as coelurosaurian dinosaurs [such as Compsognathus—BH/BT]. Notice that the last three specimens to be recognized were all misidentified at first, and the Eichstatt specimen for 20 years was thought to be a small specimen of the dinosaur Compsognathus (3:61).

Even a modern-day dinosaur encyclopedia adds doubt as to the validity of this species. “Apart from the proportions of its wings, the skeleton of Archaeopteryx is strikingly similar to that of a small, lightly built, running dinosaur, such as the coelurosaurCompsognathus” (Dixon, et al., 1988, p. 172). While controversy has surrounded Archaeopteryx for well over 100 years, only within the last fifteen have some scientists begun to question the actual genuineness of some of the fossil finds. Lee Spetner, a respected Israeli scientist, was one of the first to question the validity of certain Archaeopteryx fossils at a meeting of Jewish scientists held in Jerusalem in July 1980. Spetner had studied the British Museum specimen in June 1978, and had pointed out certain discrepancies to Alan Charig, chief curator of fossil amphibians, reptiles, and birds at the Museum. Dr. Spetner went on to publish a brief item titled “Is the Archaeopteryx a Fake?” (1983), and later stated: “Our contention is that the feather impressions were forged onto a fossil of a flying reptile” (1988, p. 15). In 1985, renowned British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle joined Spetner to reiterate the allegations that the feather impressions of Archaeopteryx were, in fact, a forgery—the result of chicken feathers having been pressed into a cement matrix that then was applied to two authentic fossils of a small dinosaur. In his assessment, Hoyle suggested that “the only undeniable featherlike impressions are therefore those on the single feather of 1860, on the British Museum specimen of 1961 and the Berlin specimen of 1877,” each of which had been handled by the Haberlein family (1985, p. 694). After examining the specimen in the British Museum (in addition to numerous photographs), Hoyle argued that the impressions of the feathers in the stone were fakes. The evidence of fossil forgery came from the following: 1. The “double-struck” appearance of the feather imprints, which allegedly resulted from a botched forging job rather than natural preservation. 2. The poor fit of the main slab and counterslab of the London specimen, indicating that the forger had tampered with the fossil layers after the rock had been split open in the quarry. 3. The finer-grained nature of the sediment bearing the feather impressions, in comparison to the coarser sediment embedding the bones (Krishtalka, 1989, p. 98). Hoyle and Spetner, along with several other well-known scientists, including Hoyle’s colleague N.C. Wickramasinghe, eventually published several papers and a small book documenting the evidence that they believed substantiated the fraud (see Hoyle, et al., 1985; Spetner et al., 1988; Watkins, et al., 1985). Hoyle and Spetner presented what appeared to be a strong case for the fabrication of the “Piltdown Bird,” as many started calling it (a reference to the famous Piltdown Man hoax of scientific fame). But, as one writer noted:

As might be expected, however, this charge against such a key “proof” of evolution could not be allowed to stand, and evolutionists everywhere were indignant. A number of papers purportedly refuting the fraud allegation were published, and the furor has died down now, with Archaeopteryx still offered in proof of evolution by most evolutionists. Unfortunately, these fossils now have been locked away in the basement of the British Museum of Natural History, no longer accessible to public view or further research (Morris and Morris, 1996, 2:67-68).

Additionally the fossils from Archaeopteryx have fallen under suspicion as a result of reported instances in which the matching faces of the fossil (the main slab and counterslab) do not match. The feather impressions are primarily on the main slab, while in several places the counterslab has raised areas that have no corresponding indentation on the main slab. These raised areas, nicknamed “chewing gum blobs,” are made of the same fine-grained material that is found only under the feather impressions. The rest of the fossil is composed of a courser-grained limestone. Some have speculated that these chewing gum blobs probably are the result of small drops of wet cement that fell on the surface but went undetected by the forger (Wickramasinghe and Hoyle, 1986). In 1986 a “definitive” test was performed on the British specimen that cast serious doubt on its authenticity. An X-ray resonance spectrograph of two samples (one from the feather region and a control sample from the non-feathered region) showed that the material containing the feather impressions differed significantly from the rest of the fossil slab. The chemistry of this “amorphous paste” also differed from the crystalline rock that normally is found in the quarry (Wickramasinghe and Hoyle, 1986). In other words, the material that composes the feathered region does not match the rest of the fossil! The British Museum “contends that the amorphous nature of the feathered material is an artifact explainable by preservatives that they have put on the fossil” (Spetner, 1990, p. 289). However, if this excuse were correct, then the “preservatives” should have shown up on the control sample as well. The British Museum has refused further testing, which seems to some a rather shocking position for a scientific organization to take, and one that unnecessarily feeds further suspicion. Alan Charig has written a response titled “Archaeopteryx is not a Forgery,” in which he and his colleagues attempted to explain these discrepancies (1986). The data in his article, however, are not sufficient to answer the questions raised above. [For additional information on both sides of the Archaeopteryx controversy, see Taylor, 1990, pp. 279-291.] The reader may find it of interest to learn that on September 11-15, 1984, an International Archaeopteryx Conference was held in Eichstatt, Bavaria to evaluate the official status of Archaeopteryx. In describing the consensus of the evolutionary scientists who attended the conference, Peter Dodson wrote in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology:

At the end of the three days of presentations, [Alan] Charig [chief curator of fossil amphibians, reptiles, and birds at the British Museum—BH/BT] orchestrated a concerted effort to summarize the ideas for which consensus exists. The general credo runs as follows: Archaeopteryx was a bird that could fly, but it was not necessarily the direct ancestor of modern birds.... A communiqué expressing the unanimous belief of all participants in the evolutionary origin and significance of Archaeopteryx was adopted, in order to forestall possible misuse by creationists of apparent discord among scientists (1985, 5:179).

It is interesting, to say the least, that the scientists at the meeting felt constrained to adopt a unanimous resolution concerning the “evolutionary origin and significance of Archaeopteryx” solely because of a desire to prevent creationists from expressing what some of their own colleagues already had pointed out—that Archaeopteryx just might not be everything it has been cracked up to be. But, after everything was said and done, the efforts of those attending the 1984 conference to save Archaeopteryx appear to have failed anyway. Read on to find out why.

Archaeopteryx—Missing Link or True Bird?

The famous American dinosaur hunter Othniel C. Marsh once said: “He is certainly a wise man who today can tell a bird from a reptile, with only the fragments of an ancient form before him” (1890). Two years after von Meyer published his description ofArchaeopteryx, Sir Richard Owen, the eminent curator of the British Museum of Natural History, published his own description. As far as Owen was concerned, Archaeopteryx was unequivocally a bird—a peculiar and distinctive bird, but a bird nevertheless. So what is it about this famous fossil that has some people seeing birds and others seeing dinosaurs? The urgency of needing to find some sort of “intermediate” caused evolutionists to concentrate on as many features ofArchaeopteryx as possible in order to discover “combined” traits. According to Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History, Archaeopteryx had “advanced characteristics of birds and retained a tremendous amount of ‘primitive’ characteristics, like teeth” (as quoted in Sunderland, 1988, p. 78). However, some fish have teeth, some do not. Some amphibians have teeth, and some do not. How can a scientist look at the presence of teeth and simply assume that this animal evolved from something else? Some have suggested that Archaeopteryx evolved from the crocodile. However, even the main proponent of the crocodile-to-bird hypothesis, Allan Walker, has stated that the hypothesis “has become so tenuous that it is very difficult to sustain” (1985, p. 133). Many scientists point out things like an opposable hallux (big toe), the furcula (wishbone), which is formed by two clavicles that have fused in the midline, and an elongated pubis directed backwards—and see nothing but a bird. Evolutionist Alan Feduccia stated: “Paleontologists have tried to turn Archaeopteryx into an earth-bound, feathered dinosaur. But it’s not. It is a bird, a perching bird. And no amount of ‘paleobabble’ is going to change that” (as quoted in Morell, 1993, 259:764). A more recent fossil bird from Mongolia—Mononychus—had hands and arms like those of digging animals (as well as teeth), and is dated at only half as old as Archaeopteryx. Writing for Science News, Richard Monastersky observed:

Mongolian and U.S. researchers have found a 75-million-year-old, bird-like creature with a hand so strange it has left paleontologists grasping for an explanation.... Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago notes that Mononychushad arms built much like those of digging animals. Because moles and other diggers have keeled sternums and wrists reminiscent of birds, the classification of Mononychus becomes difficult, he says (1993, 143:245).

Thus, evolutionists now are faced with the possibility that birds may have evolved from moles instead of reptiles! Consequently, many scientists are trying to discern how it is that animals which normally burrow in the ground suddenly decided to abandon their usual environment and “just fly away.” [We imagine that a goodly number of farmers would be interested in learning how to get these pesky creatures to abandon their fields and “just fly away”!] So what is the truth about Archaeopteryx? Perhaps the late Colin Patterson, while serving as senior paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History, summed it up best when he stated that Archaeopteryx

has simply become a patsy for wishful thinking. Is Archaeopteryx the ancestor of all birds? Perhaps yes, perhaps no: there is no way of answering the question. It is easy enough to make up stories of how one form gave rise to another, and to find reasons why the stages should be favoured by natural selection. But such stories are not a part of science, for there is no way of putting them to the test (as quoted in Sunderland, 1988, p. 102).

In an article published several years ago in Paleobiology, Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard, and Niles Eldredge of the American Museum of Natural History, wrote concerning Archaeopteryx:

Smooth intermediates between Baupläne [the German word meaning basic morphological designs or different types of creatures—BH/BT] are almost impossible to construct, even in thought experiments. There is certainly no evidence for them in the fossil record (curious mosaics like Archaeopteryx do not count)” [Gould and Eldredge, 1977, 3:147, parenthetical comment in orig.].

The story surrounding Archaeopteryx has been complicated by another paleontological discovery that has left many evolutionists scratching their heads in regard to where, exactly, the creature actually fits in the evolutionary scheme of things. The fossil remains of two crow-sized birds 75 million years older than Archaeopteryx (i.e., approximately 225 million years old according to evolutionary dating schemes) were found near Post, Texas by Sankar Chatterjee and colleagues from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas (see Beardsley, 1986). This new find, designated Protoavis, has been controversial since its announcement for several reasons. First, five years passed between its discovery and the publication of Chatterjee’s scientific paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (see Chatterjee, 1991). Second, the fossils were badly crushed and jumbled, and no feathers of any kind were visible. Some paleontologists who have seen the fossils are unconvinced that they are the remains of birds. Yet as Dr. Chatterjee (who has gone on the offensive to defend his position) has pointed out, the skull ofProtoavis has 23 features that are fundamentally bird-like, as are the forelimbs, the shoulders, and the hip girdle. In commenting on this, one author wrote in Science: “His [Chatterjee’s—BH/BT] reconstruction also shows a flexible neck, large brain, binocular vision, and, crucially, portals running from the rear of the skull to the eye socket—a feature seen in modern birds but not dinosaurs” (Anderson, 1991, 253:35). Chatterjee has named the find Protoavis texensis (first bird from Texas). In 1997, he authored a beautifully illustrated book on the evolution of birds (The Rise of Birds), in which Protoavis was displayed prominently as being the forerunner of modern birds. All of this, needless to say, has caused evolutionists severe problems because Protoavis appeared at the time of the earliest dinosaurs, which means that if it is accepted as genuine, then birds certainly could not have evolved from dinosaurs andArchaeopteryx could not be the ancestor of modern birds. After looking at the evidence for Protoavis, Kansas University paleontologist Larry Martin suggested: “There’s going to be a lot of people with Archaeopteryx eggs on their face” (as quoted in Anderson, 1991, 253:35). Regardless of where Archaeopteryx is placed, evolutionists still will be left with a lot of explaining to do. How is it that flying could have evolved in four different species: insects, birds, reptiles, and mammals? Did each have a transitional form? Did all flying animals evolve from one intermediate, and then continue evolving further into mammal form (e.g., bats) and/or insects? As Peter Wellnhofer, the expert on Archaeopteryx at the Paleontological Museum of Munich, pointed out: “It is unlikely that a feature as unusual as feathers evolved twice” (as quoted in Gibbons, 1996, 274:720). Unlikely indeed!

Archaeopteryx—Flying Capability

The debate concerning the flying ability of Archaeopteryx lithographica began not long after the initial fossil discovery. Scientists argued long and hard about whether the proposed body size and wing strength would permit this creature to get off the ground (see, for example, Yalden, 1971). So if it were the bird from which all modern birds descended, what does the evolutionary trail look like? In an article in Science on “The Evolution of Dinosaurs,” evolutionist Paul Sereno stated that “within 10 million years after the appearance of Archaeopteryx, the body size shrank to that of a sparrow” (1999, 284:2143). The article went on to suggest that modifications in the feathers and tail structure during this interval had a significant impact on flight and perching performance. Additional studies have suggested a dramatic rise in atmospheric oxygen levels (possibly yielding concentrations reaching levels as high as 35%, compared to today’s 21%) that might have “physiologically facilitated the initial evolution of insect flight metabolism” (Dudley, 2000, 62:135). The insect-catching scenario postulates that a population of dinosaurs gradually frayed out their forelegs and tail scales, somehow getting flight feathers with a rigid central shaft and hundreds of delicate parallel barbs running down along it. These barbs contained hundreds of tiny barbules to hook them together, making an effective air seal. Modern feathers are composed of a long, tapering, central rachis, with closely spaced side barbs. The barbs on either side of the rachis form a surface called the vane. The two vanes on the feather may be symmetrical or asymmetrical (in which case the rachis appears closer to one edge of the feather than the other). The flight feathers of modern birds typically are asymmetrical, while body contour (down) feathers are symmetrical. In modern birds, remiges (wing feathers) are highly modified to sustain flight, primarily in that the rachis is shifted toward the leading edge of the feather (i.e. the leading vane is thinner than the trailing vane), resulting in a true asymmetrical feather (see McFarland, 1985). All of this—just to trap insects more efficiently! Researchers compared the asymmetry of some of the flight feathers of Archaeopteryx with those of modern flying and flightless birds, as well as with the Solnhofen feather (see Speakman, et al., 1994). They discovered that the average asymmetry forArchaeopteryx feathers was 1.25, which was lower than that of modern flying birds but overlapping that of modern flightless birds. The isolated feather exhibited an asymmetry of 2.2—just within the range of modern flying birds. In addition,Archaeopteryx’s claw was compared with the claws of more than 500 species of modern birds. The study found that the pes (hind foot) of the Archaeopteryx fell within the average range of perching birds, whereas the middle claws of the manus (front hand) fell within the upper range of the claws of the strongest perching birds and completely within the range of the claws of trunk climbers (Feduccia, 1993, 259:791). The authors of the study thus concluded that in all likelihood, Archaeopteryx was a perching bird.

[to be continued]


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