Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Is It a Bird or a Dinosaur?


Is it a bird? Is it a dinosaur? The exact position of Archaeopteryx in the evolutionary tree remains debated. Main Illustration by Nobumichi Tamura. Inset photo by Michael Lee

By Michael Lee

As a new specimen of Archaeopteryx is unveiled, scientists argue whether this famous creature is a true bird or just another bird-like dinosaur.

Michael Lee is senior research scientist at the South Australian Museum and the University of Adelaide.

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As one of the most famous fossil animals, and an icon of evolution, Archaeopteryx has long attracted attention and controversy. The discovery in 1861 of a creature with the wings and feathers of a bird, but the tail and teeth of a reptile, could not have been more timely: only 2 years earlier, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had predicted such “missing links”. Archaeopteryx exemplified the evolutionary process caught in the act.

In the intervening years, a handful more specimens of this creature have come to light. As spectacular evidence of evolution, and a thorn in the side of creationists, the 11 known examples of Archaeopteryx have been subjected to perhaps more scrutiny than any other fossils. However, recent developments have highlighted that we still have a lot to learn about Archaeopteryx, and indeed the evolutionary origin of birds.

The status of Archaeopteryx as a primordial bird has been challenged repeatedly throughout its history. Creationists have regularly questioned the authenticity of the fossils, but their arguments have usually lacked scientific credibility.

However, in the 1980s a group of leading scientists claimed they had found tangible evidence of forgery. Significantly, none of the scientists were palaeontologists or biologists. They were led by the eminent astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, whose only other foray into biology...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.