Scientists were in for a surprise when the fossilized skeleton of an unusual creature was discovered in 1861 at Bavarian, Germany’s Solnhofen Limestone. This site is famous for its exquisitely-preserved fossils. This creature had the feathers of a bird, but it also had the clawed forelimbs, toothed jawed, and long, bony tail of a theropod (meat-eating) dinosaur. In 1863 Sir Richard Owen described it under the name Archaeopteryx, meaning “ancient wing.”
But to what group of animals did Archaeopteryx belong? Since birds are the only animals that have feathers today, Owen considered this creature to be an unusual type of bird.1 Most creationists have followed suit, arguing that Archaeopteryx is nothing more than an odd perching bird.2 But what kind of bird has a long, bony tail?
Let’s Get to Know the Ancient Wing
Archaeopteryx is unique in that its perfectly preserved remains allow us to know a lot more about it than most extinct animals. It was about the size of an American crow and was a carnivore, hunting for animals smaller than itself. Archaeopteryx also had an enlarged, retractable claw on its second toe, similar to that seen in Velociraptor. Comparisons of its sclerotic (eye) bones to those of other birds and reptiles indicate that Archaeopteryx would have been active primarily during the day.3 Its feathers are so well-preserved that scientists can study the pigment-producing cells. These studies suggest that Archaeopteryx was at least partially black in color.4
As mentioned above, Archaeopteryx had a blend of reptilian and bird features. Its more “bird-like” characteristics include:
- Brain structure
- Inner ear
- Air sacs
Whereas its decidedly more “reptilian-like” characteristics include:
- Toothed jaw
- Long, bony tail
- Gastralia (“belly ribs”)
- Clawed forelimbs
It was once thought that Archaeopteryx had a reversed toe that would have allowed it to perch on branches like many birds today. Better preserved specimens revealed this not to be the case.5
Is Archaeopteryx Just a Bird?
The problem that comes from Archaeopteryx being “just an unusual bird” is that it shares many features with animals that most would regard as not being birds. Majungasaurus, for example, was a mid-sized, featherless theropod. Yet, it had air sacs, much like modern birds do.6 Instead of trying to classify every animal with feathers as a bird, we ought to reconsider how we define the word “bird.”
What Exactly is a Bird Anyway?
Zoologist Dr. Marc Surtees has recently developed a set of new criteria to distinguish birds from non-birds:7
- A sophisticated flow-through lung connected to air sacs
- Lightweight, air-filled bones
- A robust wing attachment site consisting of the wishbone, shoulder blade, and coracoid (a type of shoulder bone)
- A hook-like extension of the coracoid called the acrocoracoid
- Pygostyle (rod-like or blade-like bone at the end of the tail)
- Brain with enlarged cerebellum and visual cortex
Dr. Surtees states that while some animals may have some of the features listed above, true birds should possess all of them. For example, despite having a sophisticated flow-through lung connected to air sacs, Majungasaurus was not a bird because it lacked many of the traits listed above. Based on these criteria, now-extinct toothed birds like Hesperornis and Ichthyornis, and of course, modern birds, can be officially classified as “true birds.”
Interestingly, Archaeopteryx is missing many of these criteria, including a pygostyle. This means that, based on these criteria, it is actually not a bird at all. This makes sense in light of recent research by creation paleontologists. While Archaeopteryx has proven difficult to classify, several analyses have placed it as a close relative of small, feathered dinosaurs like Velociraptor and the troodontids.8,9 This suggests that Archaeopteryx was, in fact, not a true bird at all.
We often charge our old-earth colleagues with allowing their biases to cloud their interpretation of the data. But the reality is that all of us have biases that may cloud the proper interpretation of scientific data. As far as Archaeopteryx is concerned, we have often been guided by the extra-biblical assumption that birds can be the only thing with feathers. This has made a mess of bird/dinosaur classification schemes. There is no way to completely remove the existence of our biases. But we must always be willing to change our minds on a certain issue when either biblical or scientific data does not fit our initial perception. Archaeopteryx has taught us that God’s creation is still full of many wonderful (and feathered) mysteries left to solve.
1 Owen, R. 1863. “On the Archaeopteryx of von Meyer, with a description of the fossil remains of a long-tailed species, from the lithographic stone of Solenhofen.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 153:33-47.
2 Gish, D. 1989. “As a Transitional Form Archaeopteryx Won’t Fly.” Acts & Facts. 18 (9).
3 Schmitz, L.; Motani, R. 2011. “Nocturnality in Dinosaurs Inferred from Scleral Ring and Orbit Morphology.” Science. 332 (6030): 705–8.
4 Carney, R.M. Tischlinger, H. Shawkey, M.D. 2020. “Evidence corroborates identity of isolated fossil feather as a wing covert of Archaeopteryx“. Scientific Reports. 10 (1): 15593.
5 Mayr, G., Pohl, B., Peters, D. 2005. “A Well-Preserved Archaeopteryx Specimen with Theropod Features.” Science. 310 (5753): 1483–1486.
6 O’Connor, Patrick M., Claessens, Leon, P.A.M. 2006. “Basic avian pulmonary design and flow-through ventilation in non-avian theropod dinosaurs.” Nature. 436 (7048): 253–256.
7 Surtees, M. 2021. “Is it a bird? A critical analysis of feathered fossils.” Journal of the Biblical Creation Trust. Volume 3, pages 12–19.
8 McLain, M.A., M. Petrone, and M. Speights. 2018. “Feathered dinosaurs reconsidered: New insights from baraminology and ethnotaxonomy.” In Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Creationism, ed. J.H. Whitmore, pp. 472–515. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Creation Science Fellowship.
9 McLain, M.A. 2020. “Feathered dinosaurs and the creation model.” Journal of the Biblical Creation Trust. Volume 2, pages 2–8.
The views expressed in this article reflect those of the author.