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Phylogeny vs. taxonomy, and the Fighting Dinos exhibit at AMNH
I just got back last week from a visit to Chicago and the UK, and ended
up with an unplanned 24 hour layover in New York thanks to United
Airlines. We shot into town and visited the American Museum of Natural
History, and so we saw the Fighting Dinosaurs exhibit as well. I must
say I was hugely impressed with the whole setup. We went to the Field
Museum (e.g. Sue) and the Natural History Museum in London, and I felt
the AMNH was the best (although the others are great!!). I was amazed
to see all that undescribed material, and of course there are the star
attractions of the nesting oviraptosaurs and the fighting Velociraptor
and Protoceratops. The Saurischian and Ornithischian halls are well
laid out and have excellent graphics. The former has a very lucid
series of displays on bird evolution. My only gripe is that I was
unable to photograph a lot of the specimens because of the perspex
screens (which would reflect the flash), but of course that is not what
the exhibits are designed for! It was like torture being dragged out of
there by my wife to make it back to the hotel in time to check out! In
the finish the only bit of New York we saw above ground was on the taxi
ride back to JFK!
Getting back to bird origins, I have now tracked down the Jones et al.
Longisquama article. I quote:
"Thus, we interpret the pinnate appendages of Longisquama as nonavian
feathers, probably homologous to those in birds.
Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird (145 Ma), possessed a complete
plumage of flight feathers that differed little from those of many
extant birds. Consequently, factors associated with earlier stages of
feather evolution, the morphology of the earliest feathers, and the
taxonomic groups in which they first occurred remain uncertain.
Nevertheless, if Longisquama's integumentary appendages are homologous
with those of birds, they may provide insight into an evolutionary
grade through which feathers passed almost 75 million years before
Archaeopteryx and perhaps before the origin of Aves itself."
When I wrote a while ago that I couldn't understand why Science
published this article I was informed that it didn't really discuss
bird origins. In other words, it was agnostic with respect to
bird- non-avian theropod relationships. Well, what is the above? The
statement "factors associated with earlier stages of feather evolution,
the morphology of the earliest feathers, and the taxonomic groups in
which they first occurred remain uncertain", especially in light of the
recent Chinese discoveries, is at best disingenuous, and at worst
Having read the paper I stand by my earlier comment. Under normal
circumstances (i.e. the interpretation of the fossil and the conclusion
are highly equivocal and subjective), I do not believe Science would
have touched a paper of this ilk with a barge pole. I can
understand how frustrating this must be for Tom, Greg, and others!