May 30 – Bird Brains

Today’s Factismal: The oldest known bird dates back 135 million years ago – or does it?

One of the open secrets in science is that there are very few cases where you can say definitely categorize something. For example, what you call a “cloudy day” might not seem very cloudy at all to someone raised in foggy San Francisco. And it is very hard to tell where the estuary ends and the ocean begins. But those are clear-cut examples when compared to the definition of species and deciding when a new species starts and an old one ends.

A sketch showing the reconstructed aurornis and the fossil that preserved it (Image courtesy

A sketch showing the reconstructed aurornis and the fossil that preserved it
(Image courtesy

Right now, an argument over when the birds split off from the dinosaurs is raging in the paleontological community. On the one side are those who say that Archaeopteryx lithographica (“Ancient wing written in stone”) and the recently-discovered Aurornis xui (“Xu Xing’s Dawn bird”) are early birds (that did indeed eat worms, among other things). And on the other are those, including Xu Xing, who say that they are merely bird-like dinosaurs and not true birds at all. As usual, the argument is based on slightly different definitions of what a “true bird” is (can you create a definition that covers the cassowary and the wren?)  and careful measurements of the fossils.

Is this a bird or a dinosaur? (My camera)

Is this a bird or a dinosaur?
(My camera)

If that sounds like your cup of tea, then you are in luck. The Open Dinosaur Project is looking for people to measure the limbs of dinosaurs in an attempt to better define the various dinosaur groups. Though they have finished the first set of measurements, if enough people show interest, they may start on the second!

4 thoughts on “May 30 – Bird Brains

  1. Pingback: August 31 – For the birds – Little facts about science

  2. Thanks for the pointer to the Open Dinosaur Project. But the truth is that this project is rather moribund, and has been limping towards the finish line for some time now. The lead author has had a ton of other things happen (not least becoming a father) so he’s not been able to put in the level of work we all hoped for. The ODP has at least gathered a nice, useful data-set, but it’s disappointing that it’s taking so very long to get the initial paper out.

      • I’m afraid I don’t, no. We had very high hopes of the ODP when we kicked it off, but the bottom line is probably that it was always the third or fourth priority in the lists of each of the three principals, so it’s never had the level of sustained attention it’s deserved. If it’s any consolation, I feel pretty terrible about it.

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