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Are Birds Really Dinosaurs?

Ask your average paleontologist who is familiar with the phylogeny of vertebrates and
they will probably tell you that yes, birds (avians) are dinosaurs. Using proper
terminology, birds are avian dinosaurs; other dinosaurs are non-avian dinosaurs, and
(strange as it may sound) birds are technically considered reptiles. Overly technical?
Just semantics? Perhaps, but still good science. In fact, the evidence is overwhelmingly
in favor of birds being the descendants of a maniraptoran dinosaur, probably something
similar (but not identical) to a small dromaeosaur. What is this evidence?
We'll spare you the exhaustive amount of available
cladistic studies; those alone would make a large book if
compiled. Dr. Jacques Gauthier, during his time as a
graduate student of Professor Kevin Padian here at
Berkeley, did his dissertation research on this subject,
creating the first well accepted, detailed phylogeny of
the diapsids. His work provided strong, compelling support
for the theory that birds are theropod dinosaurs.
If we look back into the history of the issue, it is apparent
that many comparative anatomists during the 16th through
19th centuries noticed that birds were very similar to
traditional reptiles. In 1860, shortly after the publication
ofCharles Darwin's influential work On the Origin of
Species By Means of Natural Selection, a quarry worker in Germany spotted an unusual
fossil in the limestone of theSolnhofen Formation (late Jurassic period). This fossil
turned out to be the famous 'London specimen' of Archaeopteryx lithographica. It was a
beautiful example of a "transitional form" between two vertebrate groups (traditional
reptiles and birds); just what Darwin expected would eventually be
found. Archaeopteryx, generally accepted as being the oldest known bird, is an
important link between birds and other coelurosaurs that has helped to illuminate the
evolutionary history (phylogeny) of the group. It is now widely held to be the ancestor of
all living birds; this is a common misconception. In fact, recent expeditions in China,
Mongolia, Madagascar, Argentina, and elsewhere may uncover dinosaurs that usurp
the "urvogel" status of Archaeopteryx.
Many scientists, including Thomas Henry Huxley (a staunch supporter of Darwin), saw
incredible similarities between birds and the theropod dinosaurs (especially the
coelurosaurs). Others since Huxley also hinted at the striking resemblances. However,
birds were still not well accepted as dinosaur descendants such hypotheses as A.
Walker's "crocodylomorph" ancestor and G. Heilman's "thecodont" ancestor held sway
for most of the 19th and 20th century, or else birds were simply dismissed as originating
from some unknown reptile that didn't matter anyway. That would change. Dr. J.H.


Ostrom's 1969 description of Deinonychus antirrhopus and its similarities
toArchaeopteryx was the major step: his work since the 1970's has provided the
impetus for a paradigm shift in paleontologists' visions of the origin of birds and the
evolution of flight. Dr. Gauthier's cladistic work in the mid-1980's provided the best
analytical systematic support for the theory that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs.
Several independent analyses by other scientists have repeatedly upheld Gauthier's
results. Today the important issue seems to be specifically which dinosaurs are the
closest relatives of birds. The controversy over the dinosaurian status of birds had its
heyday in the 1970's, but the coverage of the issue today by the press might make you
think it was still a problematic matter. For those that have actually seen the relevant
specimens and considered all of the relevant data (which is a basic procedure for any
scientist), it is becoming increasingly difficult to draw the line between "bird" and "non-
avian dinosaur".
Some researchers today do not agree that dinosaurs
gave rise to birds, and are working to falsify this
theory, but so far the evidence for the theory has
swamped their efforts. If they were to conclusively
establish that birds are more likely descended from
another group (Crocodylomorpha, the group
containing crocodiles, has been suggested), that
would be a major upheaval in our knowledge of
phylogeny. One single well-preserved fossil bird
unequivocably of Triassic age might shed some doubt on the theory of the maniraptoran
affinities of birds. That would be a major find. Some bird-like fossils have been
presented as Triassic birds, but so far have not held up under peer review. Such is the
dynamic nature of science.
So you may be thinking now, what are these striking
resemblances between birds and other dinosaurs? The ratite
birds, three of which are pictured in this article, are quite
similar to theropod dinosaurs. Some of the similarities may be
superficial, but others may be too obvious to dismiss, and in
any case all available data must be considered. We'll start
with the "reptilian" similarities of birds. Like all other reptiles,
birds have scales (feathers are produced by tissues similar to
those that produce scales, and birds have scales on their
feet). Also, birds lay eggs like other reptiles. The soft anatomy
(musculature, brain, heart, and other organs) all are fairly
similar; birds are more derived in some aspects owing
partially to their endothermic metabolism and their ability to
fly. There are numerous skeletal resemblances between birds
and other reptiles; these form the basis of the cladistic analyses done by Gauthier and
Coelurosaurian dinosaurs are thought to be the closest relatives of birds, in fact, birds



are considered to be coelurosaurs. This is based on Gauthier's and others' cladistic
analyses of the skeletal morphology of these animals. Bones are used because bones
are normally the only features preserved in the fossil record. The first birds shared the
following major skeletal characteristics with many coelurosaurian dinosaurs (especially
those of their own clade, the Maniraptora, which includes Velociraptor):
1. Pubis (one of the three bones making up the vertebrate pelvis) shifted from an
anterior to a more posterior orientation (see Saurischia), and bearing a small
distal "boot".
2. Elongated arms and forelimbs and clawed manus (hands).
3. Large orbits (eye openings in the skull).
4. Flexible wrist with a semi-lunate carpal (wrist bone).
5. Hollow, thin-walled bones.
6. 3-fingered opposable grasping manus (hand), 4-toed pes (foot); but supported by
3 main toes.
7. Reduced, posteriorly stiffened tail.
8. Elongated metatarsals (bones of the feet between the ankle and toes).
9. S-shaped curved neck.
10. Erect, digitgrade (ankle held well off the ground) stance with feet postitioned
directly below the body.
11. Similar eggshell microstructure.
12. Teeth with a constriction between the root and the crown.
13. Functional basis for wing power stroke present in arms and pectoral girdle
(during motion, the arms were swung down and forward, then up and backwards,
describing a "figure-eight" when viewed laterally).
14. Expanded pneumatic sinuses in the skull.
15. Five or more vertebrae incorporated into the sacrum (hip).
16. Straplike scapula (shoulder blade).
17. Clavicles (collarbone) fused to form a furcula (wishbone).
18. Hingelike ankle joint, with movement mostly restricted to the fore-aft plane.
19. Secondary bony palate (nostrils open posteriorly in throat).
20. Possibly feathers... this awaits more study. Small, possibly feathered dinosaurs
were recently found in China. It appears that many coelurosaurs were cloaked in
an external fibrous covering that could be called "protofeathers."
Objections to the theory of the dinosaurian origin of birds
Some researchcers have raised issues that may seem to make the theropod origin of
birds difficult to support, but these difficulties are more illusory than substantial. One
proposed difficulty is the gap in the fossil record between the first known bird (Late
Jurassic) and the dromaeosaurs, probable sister group of birds (Early Cretaceous). This
overlooks the blatant fact that other maniraptoran coelurosaurs, such
as Ornitholestes,Coelurus, and Compsognathus, are known from strata of Late Jurassic
age. If other maniraptorans were there, it logically follows that the ancestors of
dromaeosaurs were there. Fragmentary remains of possible dromaeosaurs are also
known from the Late Jurassic.
Other arguments, such as the putative differences between theropod and bird finger
development, or lung morphology, or ankle bone morphology, all stumble on the lack of
relevant data on extinct theropods, misinterpretations of anatomy, simplifying
assumptions about developmental flexibility, and/or speculations about convergence,
biomechanics, or selective pressures. The opponents of the theropod hypothesis refuse
to propose an alternative hypothesis that is falsifiable. This is probably because there
are no other suitable candidates for avian ancestors. "Thecodonts" are often promoted
as such, but this is an obfuscatory, antiquated term for a hodgepodge of poorly
understood and paraphyletic, undiagnosible reptiles. The problems cited by such
opponents for theropods are often more serious for the "thecodont" pseudo-hypothesis.
Finally, such opponents also refuse to use the methods and evidence normally
accepted by comparative evolutionary biologists, such as phylogenetic systematics and
parsimony. They rely more on an "intuitive approach," which is not a method at all but
just an untestable gestalt impression laden with assumptions about how evolution must
The "controversy" remains an interest more of the press than the general scientific
community. There are more interesting issues for scientists to explore, such as how
flight performance changed in birds, what the earliest function(s) of feathers was(were),
when endothermy arose in some archosaurs, which group of theropods was ancestral
to birds, how theropod ecology changed with the acquisition of flight, why some bird
groups survived the Cretaceous extinction of other dinosaurs, etc.
Without its feathers, Archaeopteryx looks much like a small coelurosaur such as a
dromaeosaurid or troodontid.
The facts are resoundingly in support of a maniraptoran origin for birds; certainly a
theropodan origin at the very least. So when you see a hawk diving to snatch a dove, or
an egret darting for fish, or an ostrich dashing across the African savanna, know that
you are gaining some insight into what the extinct dinosaurs were like. However, do
note that extant (living) birds are quite different from extinct dinosaurs in many ways, so
it's not safe to assume that all dinosaurs are the same. For that matter, extant birds are
quite different from Jurassic and Cretaceous birds. Time passes, the environment
changes... life evolves. Extant birds have been separated evolutionarily from the other
coelurosaurian dinosaurs for some 150 million years, so they do look, act, and function
quite differently, but science has shown us that they are closely linked by their common
evolutionary history.