Tango is excited to see you! Say hello Tango (Weeooh! Chip-chip!). He gets pretty excited when he meets new people, so we’ll see if he’ll let us talk for a little while. (weep-weep!)
A rude (but necessary) disclaimer interrupts this post to say…
I do the best I can with research, but I’m a stay-at-home mom who’s always had a passion for all things prehistoric. I’m not a paleontologist, and I don’t have access to all the scientific papers available. But I try my best to keep up to date, and all my illustrations reflect this.
That said, all the drawings in the A&S post series are quick doodles to illustrate a point, with not as much reference as I usually use, so there are plenty of inaccuracies for you to point out for me. 😉
Thank you disclaimer, you can go bother someone else now.
Oh, and one more thing, before you start seeing the name Archaeopteryx everywhere (and trying to pronounce it in your head), here’s a quick pronunciation guide. I wasn’t sure myself, so I thought I’d share it!
1. Ok, So What is He Really?
You probably recognize Tango from just about every book on dinosaurs out there. They tend to announce him as the “first bird” a lot, and 8-year-old me would think, “then what’s a bird doing in a dinosaur book?”
So what is he, a dinosaur or a bird?
Well if you read last week’s post on birds, then of course you might say he’s a dinosaur, since all birds are dinosaurs anyway. But we’re being more specific this time. 🙂
So let’s get into something called cladistics.
To put it simply (partly for my own benefit because I’ve just started getting my hands dirty with this stuff)…
cladistics is how scientists determine where an animal goes on the family tree, and how we explore animal’s relationships with each other. Animals in any particular group are determined to have shared traits and characteristics, and must therefore have a common ancestor.
For example. All cats, wild and domestic, have a number of traits that are the same, so then they must have a single common ancestor that gave them all those traits. Very much how your great grandmother passed down her characteristics to her daughter, grand daughter, and great-granddaughter. 🙂
I’ll start off with a group of dinosaurs called Theropods. They’re the ones we typically think of as walking on two legs, and generally meat-eaters, like T-rex. 🙂
Nestled inside the Theropod box are many groups. You can think of them as smaller boxes inside the big box. The box that we’re taking out of the Theropod box will be a group called Coelurosaurs (seel-ooh-row-saurs).
Most of the critters in this group are possibly feathered, and include the “ostrich dinos”, “velociraptors”, T-rex, and mostly all the animals we would think are birds at first glance.
Inside the Coelurosaur box are other boxes, including the one with T-rex inside it. But as much as I like T-rex, we’ll be ignoring his box for now and looking at a box labeled “Maniraptora”.
This box has animals that are more obviously bird-like. If we were to see them in life (vs. the Jurassic Park version) we would think “bird” or “very strange bird”. Very strange (and giant) when it comes to Therizinosaurus, but that’s a subject for another day. 🙂
Inside the Maniraptora box there are more boxes. These boxes get reorganized about twice a year, because now things start getting a little difficult when it comes to separating true birds from non-avian dinosaurs.
We’ll find Archaeopteryx in a box labeled Avialae.
This box includes all modern birds and their direct grandparents and great-great-grandparents. It also includes the toothy birds, and sometimes Troodontids (think mini raptors, but even more “birdy” and kinda like owls).
Whew! Thank you for sticking with me for all that. 🙂
The final verdict according to the family tree…
Archaeopteryx is a bird. 😀
And yes, it’s a dinosaur too, because birds fit in the “Dinosaur” box.
2. But is He the First?
Tango’s gotten a lot of press over the years as the “first bird”, but is he really the first? It depends on if there was another dinosaur as closely related to modern birds as possible, but earlier in the timeline.
And it turns out there’s another one that’s earlier in the timeline…
Aurornis xui is a bird from Jurassic China, in sediments that are older than the rocks Archaeopteryx are typically found in Europe. Pascal Godefroit et al. write in their paper on Aurornis that their studies determined it as the…
- Earliest bird
- It confirms that Archaeopteryx was indeed a bird
‘Nuff said. 🙂
3. Can He Fly?
Most of us may look at Tango and see a birdy critter with big wings- of course he can fly! But wait, not so fast. Flight, as you know, is a very difficult skill to master, and just because an animal has wings doesn’t really mean it has all the other things it needs to fly.
So poor Tango’s been in the middle of an argument.
Can he fly, or is he stuck clambering up into the branches to jump off and glide? Here’s why many paleontologists believe he can fly…
- A few amazing specimens have a wishbone (check out pictures of almost all 11 here!)
- The wing feathers are asymmetrical, just like modern birds. This gives the wings a more aerodynamic shape, which is useful for flying.
Tango’s muscles are a bit weak, and his tail is not the best for flying, but in nature, whatever you’ve got is good enough to thrive where you’re at. Tango may’ve been just good enough a flyer to get across the river, from one branch to the next. Landings were probably not his strong point.
I’d be really curious to see what paleontologists would find if they compared Archaeopteryx flight muscles with those of a hoatzin. 🙂
That’s all for now folks! Say goodbye Tango…:D
Quick Question: Do you remember your first “encounter” with Archaeopteryx? How has the media, books, and maybe your own research affected your thoughts of birds as living dinosaurs? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!