September 22, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Was Archaeopteryx a Biplane?

A U of Calgary PhD student thinks Archaeopteryx flew on all fours.  Nick Longrich thinks the early bird had feathers on its legs that gave it additional lift.  The discovery of some Chinese fossil birds with feathers on the legs lends support to his interpretation, he says.

“The idea of a multi-winged Archaeopteryx has been around for more than a century, but it hasn’t received much attention,” Longrich said.  “I believe one reason for this is that people tend to see what they want or expect to see.  Everybody knows that birds don’t have four wings, so we overlooked them even when they were right under our noses.

  He thinks this argues for the tree-down (arboreal) theory of the origin of flight, instead of the ground-up (cursorial) theory.

Maybe Longrich should dial Ken Dial down in Montana for his opinion.  Dial has staked his reputation on wing-assisted incline running (WAIR) for the origin of flight (see 05/01/2006, 11/16/2005, 12/22/2003, 01/16/2003), so this is likely to spoil his spoilers.  But we’re all for peace.  “Working toward consensus” is a buzzphrase these days.  Maybe by working together they can come up with an even better story.  The wingless female was diving off the tree, you see, and the wingless male, arms outstretched, came running to catch her.
    If Archaeopteryx had four functional flight surfaces instead of two, that’s not evolution.  For structures to persist, they have to help an animal survive.  Incipient structures do not help survival; they only get in the way.  If some extinct birds had more aerodynamic equipment than birds today, it indicates something has been lost, not gained.

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