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New Scientist story on Archaeoraptor
Here is a near-final version of my article on Archaeoraptor in this
week's New Scientist. I am told it is not on the web site. --
A FOSSIL that appears to be a bird's body with a dinosaur tail has
left some palaeontologists with egg on their faces.
At a press conference in Washington DC last October, the National
Geographic Society heralded the fossil's mixture of bird and dinosaur
features as "a true missing link in the complex chain that connects
dinosaurs to birds". Now many specialists believe that glue, not evolution,
forged the link.
The fossil, named Archaeoraptor liaoningensis, came from the famous
Chinese deposits which have yielded a wealth of exquisitely preserved early
birds. Stephen Czerkas, director of the Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, Utah,
had bought it from an unidentified fossil dealer in the US. Czerkas says he
spotted "a break in contact between the base of the tail and the rest of
the body", but after analysing layering in the surrounding rock, he decided
that the pieces did belong together.
This was exciting because Archeaoraptor's body is clearly avian,
while the straight, rigid tail is a feature of the fleet predatory
dinosaurs known as dromeosaurs. The sizes of the bones matched, and at the
time of the discovery no one had found a dromeosaur that small.
Since then, however, Xu Xing of the Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology
and Paleoanthropology in Beijing has found a feathered dromeosaur with an
identical tail of the right size in a private collection. "There is no
doubt that Archaeoraptor is composed of a bird body and a dinosaur tail,"
he told New Scientist. A CT scan of the fossil apparently confirms
that the tail is separate from
The Chinese fossils often split apart along the plane containing
the bones, producing a pair of specimens called the "part" and
"counterpart". Larry Martin, a fossil bird expert at the University of
Kansas, suspects that the Chinese farmers who found the fossils glued the
counterpart of a dinosaur tail to a bird fossil. "They found long tails
attracted better prices," he suggests. Alternatively, the juxtaposition
could have been a honest mistake.
Despite having embarrassed those palaeontologists who hailed it as
a missing link, Archaeoraptor may yet prove to be an important specimen.
"Once you cut out the dinosaur part, it probably will be an interesting
bird," says Martin, who thinks it may be one of the earliest
ornithurines--the ancestors of modern birds.
"The front half of the animal is one of a kind," agrees Czerkas. He
argues that it would have been more capable of flight
than Archaeopteryx, the oldest known bird.
However, Czerkas wants to make a side-by-side comparison of the
tail on Archaeoraptor and that of the miniature Chinese dromosaur found
before accepting that he made a mistake. The dromosaur is too fragile to
travel, so that will have to wait until Czerkas makes good his promise to
return the Archeaoraptor specimen to China, perhaps in the spring.
Jeff Hecht Boston Correspondent New Scientist magazine
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