It's a famous fossil bird, but is Archaeopteryx really a missing link?
Is Archaeopteryx a ‘missing link’?
Archaeopteryx is the name given to a creature known only from fossils (see photo of an Archaeopteryx fossil at right). The first Archaeopteryx fossil was discovered in 1861 in the Solenhofen Limestone Formation in Bavaria. Because it seemed to show a blend of both bird and reptile characters, some people have hailed Archaeopteryx as an evolutionary “missing link” between reptiles and birds.
But is Archaeopteryx really a “missing link” — some sort of intermediate stage or transitional form between reptiles and birds?
Features of birds and dinosaurs
There is no doubt that Archaeopteryx is unique. It has been classified as a bird because of its feathers, opposable big toe (hallux), wishbone (furcula), and pubis. Except for the hallux and solid feathers, all the other features are not unique to birds. Archaeopteryx also had many dinosaur characters that are not found in modern birds.
There has been discussion in recent years about the so-called “feathered” dinosaurs found as fossils in China. These dinosaurs appear to have had down — the soft, furry stuff that birds get before their feathers fully develop. But this does not provide evidence that dinosaurs evolved into birds (see article at left). There is a lot more to being a bird than just having feathers (see our article Birds and flight were created).
Was Archaeopteryx a feathered dinosaur? Dr. Alan Feduccia, a world authority on birds at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an evolutionist himself, said: “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.”1
Even though Feduccia's conclusion may be in the minority among evolutionists, he is more of an authority on birds than most evolutionists, and his view shows that there is certainly not agreement among experts in the field that Archaeopteryx was a feathered dinosaur. We are not saying that we agree with him on everything of course (after all, we do not agree with his evolutionary views, and he apparently believes that Archaeopteryx is some sort of transitional form, which we do not), but we are pointing out that the case for Archy being a feathered dinosaur certainly has not convinced all prominent evolutionists.
Sharing characters does not prove evolution. Despite having features in common with some dinosaurs, the evidence of the feathers and opposable hallux indicates that Archaeopteryx was an unusual bird (in the same way that the platypus is an unusual mammal).
The fact that it had some features in common with reptiles means simply that it had some features in common with reptiles — not that it evolved. The evidence is certainly not strong enough to conclude that Archaeopteryx was a “missing link,” or part of a series of creatures that evolved from dinosaurs into birds.
1. Feduccia, A.; cited in V. Morell, “Archaeopteryx: Early Bird Catches a Can of Worms,” Science 259(5096):764–65, 5 February, 1993.