It has long been recognized that there are tremendous similarities shared between modern birds and non-avian dinosaurs like Velociraptor and Oviraptor. For this reason, the consensus among paleontologists is that modern birds evolved from non-avian dinosaurs. Biblically, we know this to be impossible. The first chapter of Genesis records that birds were created on the fifth day of Creation Week, while land animals (including non-avian dinosaurs) were created on the following day. Nevertheless, the late 20th and early 21st centuries have been highlighted with a plethora of very bird-like dinosaur discoveries, including some with feathers. How can this be understood from a biblically-consistent worldview?
Traditionally, creationists have placed “feathered dinosaurs” into one of three groups: either they were 1) misidentified birds with true feathers, 2) dinosaurs with misidentified feathers, or 3) hoaxes, as was the case with the infamous Archaeoraptor specimen, where the back half of a dinosaur was glued to the front half of a bird. A landmark paper presented at the 2018 International Conference on Creationism by paleontologist Matt McLain et al. took a different approach.
They first established that, yes, some dinosaurs really had feathers. These feathers came in many different shapes and sizes, as do feathers in modern birds. Some, like those of the chicken-sized Sinosauropteryx, were down-like fuzzy filaments that mainly helped keep the animal warm. Others, like those of Archaeopteryx and Microraptor, were similar to the flight feathers in modern birds and would have enabled the animals to fly or glide. Some dinosaurs may have also used feathers for display; Caudipteryx had a fan of feathers on the end of its tail that resembled a miniature peacock’s tail.
Another observation McLain and the other researchers made was that these feathered bird-like dinosaurs truly did blur the line between creatures traditionally called “dinosaurs,” and those traditionally called “birds.” In fact, it was virtually impossible to be dogmatic about whether to call some species birds or not in many cases. Though the lack of apparent dissimilarity may seem to confirm the evolutionary relationship between modern birds and non-avian dinosaurs, closer inspection calls this into question.
Using statistical analyses, McLain et al were able to determine that there are major discontinuities within the group containing non-avian dinosaurs and modern birds. In other words, there are species that form clusters of “similarness” that are sufficiently separated from other clusters of species by an unbridgeable chasm. These islands of similarity can be equated to created kinds of organisms.
McLain’s research found evidence that feathered dinosaurs represent at least seven created kinds, none of which shared continuity with any other created kind of non-avian dinosaur or modern bird. Some of these created kinds included the ornithomimosaur kind (e.g. Gallimimus, Ornithomimus & Struthiomimus), the oviraptorosaur kind (e.g. Oviraptor & Caudipteryx), and the therizinosaur kind (e.g. Therizinosaurus & Nothronychus). Interestingly, the deinonychosaur kind appeared to contain species that are traditionally considered birds, like Archaeopteryx, as well as species traditionally considered dinosaurs, like Velociraptor and Deinonychus. Nevertheless, even this created kind was sufficiently distinguished from other created kinds.
McLain and his team determined that while their research confirmed the prediction that modern birds belong to different created kinds from dinosaurs, it is also a call for creationists to rethink the way they understand not just how to understand the relationship between birds and non-avian dinosaurs, but the organization of life and God’s created variety as a whole. We can group modern tetrapods (four-limbed land animals) into one of four groups: mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. However, fossil discoveries of the past several decades of “dino-birds,” therapsids, and other mosaic organisms render these distinctions unhelpful and perhaps incorrect. Rather, birds can be regarded as a specialized type of feathered dinosaur, in much the same way bats are a type of mammal.
“Forcing fossil specimens to be either ‘bird’ or ‘dinosaur’ neglects the complexity of the design patterns among these kinds of animals and can mask God’s glory, which He determined to display through them.”Matt McLain, 2018
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