Meet Douglas. He’s excited to meet you! This bundle of energy may not be the best of flyers, but he loves to clamber all over things…rocks, trees, the couch, you… 😉
The little girl clung tightly to the small creature, his wings folded close against his furry body. His legs dangled loosely down by her legs, but he didn’t seem to mind. He gazed up at her pink, rounded face with the wide-eyed curiosity of a bird as she chattered about lizards and the rough bark on the pine trees that bordered the fenced backyard.
Meet Ron. He’s the flying ace. He’ll swoop from the sky, dive into the water, and swim anywhere for a shiny fish. 🙂
Gravel crunched under rubber as Pete pulled in to a stop a short way from the lake. With a turn of his wrist he shut off the ignition and tossed the keys on the console between the two front seats. He grabbed his hat and shoved it on his head as he shrugged open the door, and his heavy boots crunched on the gravel road.
It was a clear afternoon with a sky so deep a blue it looked almost painted, and Pete whistled a little tune as he shut the door, opened the passenger door, and reached into the back seat.
“You awake yet?” he asked, straining a little as he dragged out a large pet carrier. It lurched to the side with a squeal and a jingle, and Pete held it steady to keep it from ramming into the front seat.
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…
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.
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!
If I asked you, “What is a bird?” What would you say? For most of us (at least for me) the first things that come to mind are feathers, a beak, and usually flight. Oh yes, and lays eggs. If you look out your window, go on a hike, or visit the zoo, it’s easy to recognize birds for what they are.
But what if we went back in time a few million years? It may be harder to pick out the bird from the…not bird, than you think.
Let’s say you’re picking your way through the thick undergrowth of a pine grove. You hear twittering from a branch above you, and you look up to see the tiny singer. It looks like a bird, it acts like a bird, but when it opens its beak to sing you notice tiny teeth.
Is it a bird?
Let’s try another one. Another place, another time.
You look up when you hear the sound of flapping wings above you. At first glance it looks like a bird, but then you notice those long tail feathers are not just feathers. Instead of a long train like a parrot or peacock, this fan is supported by a long tail. A closer look and you notice that this bird has claws on its wings, and a beakless snout with tiny teeth.
Is it a bird?
Let’s take a look at one more.
In another place, another time, we peak through the branches to look out into a clearing. Pecking at the undergrowth is something that looks a bit like an ostrich, or maybe an emu. Shaggy feathers, a toothless beak, and feather-duster wings all look like a big, flightless bird. But no bird has a long tail like that. That tail looks like it belongs on a lizard, if only it wasn’t covered in feathers.
Is it a bird?
At first glance, all three look very much like birds.
The first is an early bird called Sulcavis, which lived around the same time as T-rex, in China.
The second is Archaeopteryx. More dinosaur than bird, and from a much earlier time in Germany. It’s often reported as the first bird, but there are earlier cousins that are more bird than dinosaur.
The third is Gallimimus. If you’ve ever seen the original Jurassic park, these are the featherless “ostrich dinosaurs” that stampede around the heroes. Fossils now tell us that these dinosaurs would look very much like emus and ostriches with tails. 🙂
So how do we know which is which? We can’t define it based on feathers, eggs, or flight. In fact, paleontologists argue quite a bit on exactly what makes something a bird or a dinosaur.
The best answer I have on this insanely complicated subject (because let’s face it, I’m no expert. I’m just a couch enthusiast 😛 )…
All birds, past and present, are dinosaurs. But not all dinosaurs are birds. 😉
Even this handsome guy. I love the thought of dinosaurs running around my yard and giving me eggs.
Quick Question: What do you think about the relationship of birds and dinosaurs? The discovery of more and more dinosaurs with feathers has turned into a rather hot topic, with passionate feelings on both sides.
Me? I think our entire natural world (and our place in it) is amazing beyond words, so I’m cool with anything the latest research has to dish out. Birds jumping on the dinosaur wagon just adds a whole new dimension of awesome. 😀
When you think of an animal with wings, you usually think of something that can fly right? Bird is one of the first things that pops in my head, and when most of us think of birds, we usually think of birds that fly.
But not all birds fly. Of course, out of all the birds that can’t fly, what’s the first thing that comes to mind. Penguin? Ostrich? Kiwi?
Then there’s another category (wait, there’s more?).
Those are the birds that don’t usually fly, the sort of bird that we’re always a bit surprised to hear can actually fly.
Like turkeys. 🙂
So how does this apply to prehistoric critters? Well, there are times when paleontologists aren’t so sure if a bird or other feathered dinosaur could fly. And then there are the times when paleontologists are so sure something could not fly, but then later on down the road new evidence shows up that it might…
So how can you tell for sure?
This is where the guessing game gets fun. We take a look at all the evidence we have, look at modern animals to get more insight on certain relevant details, and then propose our best hypothesis.
Next week, we’ll take a look at one of these discombobulating critters. Until then, enjoy the adorkable awkwardness of a hoatzin clambering about (a lovely bird of the South American Amazon). Landings don’t look like their strong point. 😛
Quick Question: What’s the first bird you think of when I say “bird”? I’ve got kiwis and penguins on the brain since I’ve written this post, but I do love the little songbirds that sing around our yard. I’d love to hear from you in the comments!
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