December 2, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Archaeopteryx in the Headlines Again: New Specimen Reported

The best-preserved fossil yet of Archaeopteryx was announced in Science this week,1 the tenth in all.  This one, described by Gerald Mayr of the Senckenberg Natural History Museum (Frankfurt, Germany), had a better-preserved foot than the others (all found in the Solnhofen Limestone beds of Bavaria) with indications it had a hyperextendable second toe somewhat similar to those on deinonychosaurs.  Not being reversible, as on modern birds, this toe led the discoverers to conclude Archaeopteryx was not a perching bird.  National Geographic News is convinced this fact plus the theropod-shaped skull settles the dispute about the relationship of birds to theropod dinosaurs.
    Erik Stokstad, however, in a News Focus article in the same issue of Science,2 denied that there was anything radically new about this specimen.  There’s another problem: Burkhard Pohl, an amateur collector and founder of the for-profit Wyoming Dinosaur Center where it will be housed (also co-author of the announcement in Science) is not forthcoming on this fossil’s pedigree:

The origins of the Archaeopteryx, however, remain hazy.  Pohl says he “found a donor” to buy it from a private collector after the Senckenberg failed to raise enough money.  (Mayr declines to reveal the asking price, but the Paläontologische Museum München paid DM 2 million–about $1.3 million–for a less spectacular specimen in 1999.)  The Archaeopteryx appears to be legal, because Bavaria allows the export of fossils.  Pohl won’t say who legally owns it, but he says that it’s “guaranteed that it will stay in a public collection.”   (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

Pohl has connections with the world of commercial fossil dealing, and some scientists “remain uncomfortable” working with him, according to Stokstad.  “They want to be absolutely certain that fossils, particularly foreign ones, were legally excavated.”  They also want such important fossils to be housed in accredited public collections.  Stokstad did not question the authenticity of this fossil specifically, and included some details supporting Pohl’s credibility and good intentions, but that he did raise these concerns by scientists in the same issue as the announcement of the discovery seemed unusual.
    Science News (Week of Dec. 3, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 23, p. 355) offered additional information.  It said that the interpretation of the foot is not conclusive.  Some scientists, including Larry Martin (U of Kansas) and Alan Feduccia (U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) are not convinced that the discoverers proved their case that the bird was unsuited for perching in trees.  To them, the claws look curved for perching and the toe looks reversible for clinging, just like on the other specimens.

1Gerald Mahr, Burkhard Pohl and D. Stefan Peters, “A Well-Preserved Archaeopteryx Specimen with Theropod Features, Science, 2 December 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5753, pp. 1483 – 1486, DOI: 10.1126/science.1120331.
2Erik Stokstad, “Best Archaeopteryx Fossil So Far Ruffles a Few Feathers,” Science, 2 December 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5753, pp. 1418 – 1419, DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5753.1418.

Once again, a cloud of doubt is raised around this icon of evolutionary “transitional forms.”  Fred Hoyle wrote a whole book about possible fraud surrounding the most famous feathered Archaeopteryx fossils (not all have feather impressions), and others have done the same over the years.  Now we have another, the best-looking of all, and we can’t be absolutely sure where it came from.  Why can’t the best paleontologists go over to Bavaria and uncover a clear example of a feathered specimen in situ to end all doubt?
    Although Hoyle’s hoax theory is not widely accepted, the lure of famous fossils cannot be discounted (05/06/2004).  Owning a feathered Archaeopteryx is a prize so lucrative, one can imagine the temptation to hire shadowy figures to carve feather impressions around a plain old theropod fossil.  The cost of an expert carving could be covered many times over by the sale of a prize specimen.  We’re not claiming this is what happened; it probably does not matter anyway.  Jonathan Wells argued in Icons of Evolution that cladistic diagrams show that Archaeopteryx preceded the “bird-like dinosaurs” thought to be the ancestors of birds, so its status as a transitional form is questionable (08/05/2004).  Clearly, “an animal cannot be older than its ancestor,” he joked (cf. 10/24/2005).

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Categories: Birds, Dinosaurs, Fossils

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