Archaeopteryx: The Rock Star of Dino-Birds?
by Jerry Bergman Ph. D.
A recent article in the BBC News announces that “One of the true ‘rock stars’ of the fossil world is going on tour for the first time”. The fossil is Archaeopteryx, and it’s taking the first trip in its history to Japan.[i] Furthermore, the article added, “The limestone slabs that contain the bones of this pivotal creature on the evolutionary line from dinosaurs to birds are considered priceless.” The adulation given this “very delicate” slab of stone is almost like that bestowed on a venerated religious statue. The very fragile stone containing this putative 150-million-year-old icon has been housed in a museum and guarded carefully, so to travel to Japan is unprecedented. Just why is this old rock so valuable? What is the story behind it? Briefly, Archaeopteryx, an extinct bird about the size of a crow, is one of the most well-known “icons of evolution” today.[ii]
The name Archaeopteryx is a combination of two Greek words, archaīos, ancient, and ptéryx, feather or wing.[iii] Although the name means “ancient feather,” because it has several features that are more typical of reptiles, many evolutionists claim it is an evolutionary ‘link’ between birds and reptiles. This avian curiosity was first discovered in 1860 in the limestone rocks in Bavaria, Germany, a little over a year after Darwin’s classic book on evolution titled The Origin of Species was published. The most complete skeleton found so far, called the Berlin Specimen, named because of where it is housed, was discovered around 15 years later near Eichstatt, Germany by Jakob Niemeyer.[iv]
Archaeopteryx was immediately seized on by Darwinists as critical evidence of evolution. A feather imprint was discovered first and, later, in a nearby quarry, an almost complete skeletal imprint was found. Both fossils are now housed in the British museum. It is one of the 12 known fossil specimens and one feather that are part of the Archaeopteryx family so far discovered. The Thermopolis specimen (photo) was discovered in 2005. The eleventh specimen was discovered in 2011, and number twelve in 2014.[v] Several fossils show its wings outstretched when it died, producing clear imprints of its fully modern feathers.
The major claim to fame of this interesting creature is that, although it is very birdlike, it possesses certain features that some interpret as being more ‘primitive’—meaning reptilian—than most of today’s birds.[vi] What these features mean has been a fertile field for conjecture, and they have produced more then their fair share of controversy down to today. Hitching argues that “every one of its supposed reptilian features can be found in various species of undoubted birds,” casting doubt on claims it represents a transitional form.[vii]
Another problem is no evidence exists that Archaeopteryx was losing reptile traits and developing bird features, because both its putative reptile and bird features were both fully developed. It has a long bony tail like a reptile on which feathers grew, but some birds have a similar feature—the present-day swan is one example. The difference between bird and reptile tails is due primarily, not to the number of vertebrae, but the greater elongation of the caudal vertebrae in the latter. In the embryonic stage, some living birds feature tails with more vertebrae bones than the tails of Archaeopteryx.
The ostrich, the largest extant bird known today, provides a useful example for comparisons with fossil birds because it has many features in common with Archaeopteryx. For example, both are non-flyers, with claws on their wings. In fact, some claim that the ostrich has more reptilian features than the Archaeopteryx, but nobody considers the ostrich a transitional form.[viii] Half of the ostrich’s height consists of its neck. It is obviously a bird, and though it cannot fly, it can run as fast as a horse. To be defined as a bird, an animal need not be able to fly (most do) but it must have true feathers: all creatures with true modern feathers are birds, and all those without are not birds.
The so-called feathered dinosaurs have not disrupted this classical definition because none of them have true feathers. A recent examination of Archaeopteryx feathers by the Smithsonian Institution concluded that they are the same as those belonging to many modern flying birds. Thus, the Archaeopteryx in many ways is closer to modern-day birds than an ostrich. The ostrich has non-flight down feathers.
Another feature of Archaeopteryx is that it possessed three claws on each wing—an interesting, but not a unique trait. Juveniles of the South American hoatzin, the African touraco and the ostrich all have claws on both of their ‘feathered forelimbs’ or wings. Archaeopteryx also had bony jaws lined with teeth, not an uncommon feature of ancient birds, particularly those found in Mesozoic strata.[ix] One could just as well argue that Archaeopteryx was nothing more than an extinct bird with teeth.
Archaeopteryx also had a shallow breastbone that would have given it a feeble wing beat and, as a result, some believe, poor flight. The hoatzin has a similar shallow breastbone, and many bird species now exist that are incapable of flight and they evidently always have been.
Birds must be very light in order to fly. The low-weight requirement is the main reason why the bones of both large and small flying birds are very thin and hollow. Although some researchers have concluded that the Archaeopteryx bones were both thin and hollow, no fossil bones exist, only their impressions. For now, the conclusion that Archaeopteryx bones were solid like a reptile’s—not thin or hollow like a bird’s—must remain an assumption. It is still debated, though, whether or not they are pneumatized as are most bird’s wings. The pneumatized (air-filled) bones of true birds have a frame structure that resembles a house truss. They contain many air sacs, giving the bones both strength and lightness.
It was assumed for decades that Archaeopteryx was a unique animal in the fossil strata in which it was found. More knowledge about the natural world has rendered that assumption obsolete. Brigham Young University (BYU) scientists have discovered the fossil of an unequivocal bird in Western Colorado rocks that is reported to be from the same geological era as those that Archaeopteryx was found. If true, Archaeopteryx could not be a link between reptiles and birds in that, according to this evidence, the latter were already present.
Various recent discoveries such as this by BYU “weakens the case for Archaeopteryx as an [fossil] intermediate, and makes it that much more likely that the creature was just one of a number of strange birds living at that time.”[x] The fact that Archaeopteryx has features of both birds and reptiles does not make it a transitional animal any more than a mammal with bird features, such as a duck-billed platypus, makes it a link between mammals and birds. Nilsson concluded, “they are no more reptiles than the present-day penguins with their wing-fin are transitional forms to fish.”[xi]
We would expect the fossil record to show gradual development of bird-like features, but the first confirmed bird, Archaeopteryx, had feathers that were perfectly developed, teeth that were perfectly functional, and a jaw and breastbones that were not intermediate between birds and reptiles but, so far as can be known from the bone impressions, were perfectly functioning jaws and breastbones.
Archaeopteryx is clearly a mosaic, similar to taking several different makes of cars and removing the fenders from one, and welding them on another different model, making the necessary modifications so that all of the parts fit together. When the required modifications are complete, it is still apparent to a knowledgeable observer that different makes of automobiles went into the final product— but the parts were modified so that they function properly in the new creation. Hundreds of such mosaic animals exist—so many that one researcher commented “they seem to be created as if their design was decided by a committee.”
Some like the late astronomer Fred Hoyle have tried to argue that the feathers of the London fossil may be a forgery. Now, however, so many extinct animals exist, with so much incredible variety between both the extinct and living types, that a mosaic such as Archaeopteryx does not produce problems for the creation model.[xii] I believe that the Archaeopteryx fossils should be looked at more carefully using modern technology such as CT scans and MRI. The critiques of Fred Hoyle’s work are hardly conclusive. Doubt exists about the forgery claim, but evolutionists have “good reason” to argue for its validity, not so much for science and fact reasons, but for its propaganda value. They are motivated to maintain Archaeopteryx as the most important missing link ever discovered.
The scientific evidence for forgery cannot be fully evaluated if the British Museum continues to refuse to allow critics the right to do research on its fossils, as is currently the case. So far, of the 12 Archaeopteryx examples that exist, several contain good feather imprints and a separate feather also exists, creating severe problems for the forgery hypothesis.[xiii] Nonetheless, it has been clear for some time that Archaeopteryx needs more careful evaluation before it can be determined to be a link between reptiles and birds.[xiv] The transitional status of this creature has been controversial from when it was first discovered till today. Also controversial are many details of the entire bird fossil family.[xv] For example, transversely-running fracture faces in the bones have a circumferential fabric which is characteristic, not of reptiles, but of dense lamellar or parallel-fibered bones typical of living non-dinosaurian reptiles.[xvi]
- [i] Amos, Jonathan. 2017. ‘Rock star’ Archaeopteryx fossil heads for Japan. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-39198831
- [ii] Wellnhofer, Peter. 2010. Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution. München, Germany: Friedrich Pfeil Verlag.
- [iii] Castro, Joseph. 2016. Archaeopteryx: The Transitional Fossil. Live Science. https://www.livescience.com/24745-archaeopteryx.html.
- [iv] Castro, 2016
- [v] Castro, 2016.
- [vi] Stanley, Steven. 1987. Extinction. New York: Scientific American Library, p. 121
- [vii] Hitching, Francis. 1982. The Neck of the Giraffe; Where Darwin Went Wrong. New Haven, CT: Ticknor & Fields. p. 34
- [viii] Hitching, 1982, p. 35
- [ix] Duffett, Gerald. 1983. Archaeopteryx Lithographia Reconsidered. Glasgow, BCS, 1983
- [x] Hitching, 1982, p. 35
- [xi] quoted in Hitching, 1982, p. 36.
- [xii] Hoyle, Fred and Chandra Wickramasinghe. 1986. Archaeopteryx: The Primordial Bird. A Case of Fossil Forgery. Swansea, SA2 9BE: Christopher Davies.
- [xiii] Wellnhofer, 2010 p. 133
- [xiv] Brown, C. 1980. “Another Look at Archaeopteryx” Creation Research Society Quarterly. Vol. 17(2):87, 109, September, p. 87.
- [xv] Bergman, J. 2017. Fossil Forensics, ch. 11. (See link below.)
- [xvi] Erickson, Gregory M. et al., 2016. Was Dinosaurian Physiology Inherited by Birds? Reconciling Slow Growth in Archaeopteryx. journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0007390
Dr Jerry Bergman, professor, author and speaker, is a frequent contributor to Creation-Evolution Headlines. See his Author Profile for his previous articles.
See Dr Bergman’s book Fossil Forensics for more details on the evidence for a transition between reptiles and birds.
Leading creation organizations like CMI, ICR and AiG have articles about Archaeopteryx searchable online.