Chinese scientists provided new analysis in proposing that the long time group of birds Archaeopteryx are not considered in the avian family but rather more related to the Deinonychosaurs.
Regarded as the oldest bird in recorded history, the Archaeopteryx may be changing its family tree identity to be more like dinosaurs. The Archaeopteryx is recorded as a 150 million-year-old creature who possessed numerous bird like features. It has long stood as a foundation in scientist research about the origins of birds and its connection with theropods.
In a journal written by paleontologist Dr. Xing Xu and his researchers, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing, the group discovered fascinating traits that may tie the Archaeopteryx with the Deinonychosaurs family. The Deinonychosaurs are considered dinosaurs, similar to the Velociraptors seen in the Jurassic Park films, and were evolutionary to birds.
The findings included the creature's forelimbs and its length. The forelimbs were primarily featured in flight ability and were seen in the Avialans and Deinonychosaurs group.
The comparisons of wings and feathers would still regard birds as dinosaurs. Birds and the non avian dinosaurs possess similar features and that multiple lineages of dinosaurs developed feathers. According to Dr. Xing Xu, the Archaeopteryx falls into this category as more features are being compared to non avian dinosaurs and could just be a feathered theropod rather than a bird.
After analyzing Archaeopteryx fossils and cross comparing them with 89 other dinosaur and bird specimens, Dr. Xing Xu found additional comparisons in the animal's skull. The large holes in the frontal part of the eyes appear to only exist among groups such as Deinonychosaurs and not in groups of birds.
Dr. Xing Xu also listed comparisons to the Deinonychosaurs' specialized hind foot claw, which could extend thanks to a sheath in its bone. The Archaeopteryx displays developmental features in this area. Also based on the fossils, the Archaeopteryx adorned feathers around its forelimbs and hind limbs with longer feathers growing from the thighs. The feathers and properties of its forearms suggest it flew to hunt for food.
If the findings are true, the Archaeopteryx would join another feathered dinosaur that was recently discovered called Anchiornis, also unearthed by Dr. Xing Xu and his team. The creature is reported to be the oldest feather bearing animal, older than the Archaeopteryx by 11 million years. Feathers cover the creatures body with special forelimb feathers coming from the wrist. The Anchiornis also carry aerodynamic features from the overlapping feather patterns.
'These results invite a re-evaluation of the ancestral condition for birds from the perspective of morphology, behaviour and ecology,' said Dr. Xing Xu.
There has been support to the recent findings which could alter the understandings of birds and their origin.
"Since Archaeopteryx was found 150 years ago, it has been the most primitive bird and consequently every theory about the beginnings of birds - how they evolved flight, what their diet was like - was viewed through the lens of Archaeopteryx," wrote Ohio University professor Lawrence Witmer.
The Archaeopteryx may have currently stood as the godfather of birds but the dethroning may offer opportunities for other species such as the Sapeornis and Epidexipteryx to shed light as the oldest bird in the family tree.
Dr. Xing Xu and his group plan to continue researching and building analysis on how the morphological features from Archaeopteryx support Avialan affinities. As of this time, the hypothesis remains weak without additional data.
To be sure, the assertion of Xu's study doesn't challenge the scientific community's assumption that birds evolved from dinosaurs. However, they may have to look elsewhere to bestow the title of the oldest known bird fossil. Moreover, the theory of evolution may have lost one of its early icons.
"Maybe Archaeopteryx wasn't on the direct ancestral line to birds, but was part of an early experimentation in how to build a bird-like body," Paul Barrett, a London-based dinosaur researcher, told Guardian.
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