Archaeopteryx: ‘Missing link’ or just a bird?

Fossil bird Archaeopteryx

Archaeopteryx is the name given to a bird-like creature known only from fossils (photo 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 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.

Feathered dinosaurs?

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 comments below). 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.

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1. Feduccia, A.; cited in V. Morell, “Archaeopteryx: Early Bird Catches a Can of Worms,” Science 259(5096):764–65, 5 February, 1993.

Feathered dinosaurs?

A dinosaur with fully formed feathers was reported to be found in China, a report in New Scientist (6 March 2002) claimed. The dinosaur was named BPM 1 3-13, but we call it “Fluffy”. Fluffy was said to be the size of a pheasant, with feathers all over, and was a dromaeosaur, a group of dinosaurs that included velociraptors.

Mark Norell from the American Museum of Natural History said the fossil had “unequivocably modern feathers, with a single rachis down the middle and barbs coming off the sides.” He added: “I hope this ends the argument about birds being related to dinosaurs.”

If this turns out to be genuine (and remember that two legs plus feathers usually equals bird, not dinosaur), we should point out that even if some dinosaurs had feathers, that does not indicate that birds evolved from dinosaurs or even that dinosaurs or birds have evolved.

For creationists, there seems no biblical reason that some dinosaurs couldn't have been created with feathers — just as fish and reptiles were created with scales, and wings appear on insects, mammals (bats), and reptiles (pterodactyls).

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