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Archaeopteryx—“The Greatest Embarrassment of Paleontology”

by  Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

One of the “proofs” routinely given for the theory of organic evolution is the supposition that birds allegedly evolved from dinosaurs. Textbooks frequently tout the fossilized remains of a creature known as Archaeopteryx as proof that evolution is a “fact.” To understand just how vital this creature is to evolutionary theory, all one must do is survey how frequently it is featured in general biology textbooks. Archaeopteryx has become an icon to which evolutionists vehemently cling, as they continue to indoctrinate students with the notion that all living creatures arose from a common ancestor. The theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs originated with the late John Ostrom, who once served as a professor at Yale University as well as Curator Emeritus of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Peabody Museum of Natural History (see Ostrom, 1970, 1974, 1975, 1976). Thanks in part to his dogged determination, as well as the militant efforts of neo-Darwinians, Ostrom’s conjecture now stands as a prominent pillar supporting evolutionary theory.

The irony is that there are no alternative “ancestors” that would explain the evolutionary existence of birds. Dinosaurs are the only candidates that can offer any answers as to how birds came into existence. Thus, evolutionists are forced to defend this “transitional fossil,” no matter how tenuous the evidence. This necessity explains why evolutionists are so dogmatic about this material remaining in textbooks—they want to ensure all students are familiar with Archaeopteryx.

Last year, the journal Science reported the discovery of the tenth Archaeopteryx specimen (see Mayr, et al., 2005). Gerald Mayr and his colleagues observed: “Here we describe a 10th skeletal specimen of an archaeopterygid. The specimen was discovered in an unknown locality of the Solnhofen area and was housed in a private collection before it was recently acquired by the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, USA” (2005, 310:1483, emp. added). [One wonders if this “unknown locality” was the same Chinese farmhouse that witnessed the “evolution” of the alleged Archaeoraptor—a creature later determined to be a forged composite, consisting of fossilized remains from both a bird and a dinosaur.] This latest Archaeopteryx discovery has stimulated once again a great deal of controversy—as many scientists question the validity of the find, and others question whether Archaeopteryx is even a link at all.

While many evolutionists have hailed Archaeopteryx as a vital transitional fossil, few readily admit the peculiar circumstances that frequently accompany Archaeopteryx discoveries. For instance, Reinhold Leinfelder, director of the General Museum of Natural History in Humboldt-University noted:

It seems that Archaeopteryx findings have always been accompanied by mysterious circumstances. The first complete specimen discovered in Bavaria in 1861 was sold by its anonymous finder to a wealthy buyer, kept secret, and eventually sold to the Natural History Museum in London. The tenth, and most recent, specimen is no exception. Also found in Bavaria, by an unknown person (allegedly in the 1970s), it was sold to an unknown third party in Switzerland, ending up in a small private museum in Thermopolis, Wyoming, USA (2006, 312:197, emp. added).

Given the importance archaeologists place on the location and surrounding strata for fossilized finds, one wonders how this “important” discovery just conveniently showed up. One also wonders why this tenth specimen has not received greater scrutiny from the scientific community. Could it be that because this is a vital “link” in the evolutionary theory, that it has been given a free-pass?

The controversy over the legitimacy of Archaeopteryx does not stop with how it has been found. The feathers themselves also have been the center of a great deal of controversy. Prior to this latest discovery, the only specimens that showed any feather impressions were the two fossils that were sold to museums by the Haberlein family. In 1861, Karl Haberlein sold his fossil to the British Museum, and sixteen years later his son Ernst sold the second one to the Berlin Museum. Some scientists maintain that these alleged feathered fossils are nothing more than a small dinosaur on which someone artificially placed feather imprints on. In speaking of Archaeopteryx in 1975, John Ostrom wrote:

...these specimens are not particularly like modern birds at all. If feather impressions had not been preserved in the London and Berlin specimens, they [the other specimens—BH] never would have been identified as birds. Instead, they would unquestionably have been labeled as coelurosaurian dinosaurs [such as CompsognathusBH]. Notice that the last three specimens to be recognized were all misidentified at first, and the Eichstatt specimen for 20 years was thought to be a small specimen of the dinosaur Compsognathus (3:61).

While scores of evolutionists continue to promote Archaeopteryx as a “factual” missing link, some scientists believe the facts do not support the propaganda. Ann Gibbons noted:

The new findings haven’t swayed Feduccia or University of Kansas paleontologist Larry Martin, another skeptic of the bird-dinosaur link. Says Feduccia: “It’s biophysically impossible to evolve flight from such large bipeds with foreshortened forelimbs and heavy, balancing tails”—exactly the wrong anatomy for flight. And as for the suite of other strange-looking characters that link dinosaurs and birds, Martin says that they could have been inherited from an ancient reptilian ancestor that gave rise to both dinosaurs and birds. “In my opinion, the theropod origin of birds will be the greatest embarrassment of paleontology in the 20th century,” says Feduccia (1996, 274:721, emp. added).

This bold declaration has not slowed speculation as to the role Archaeopteryx plays in the origin of flight and modern birds. Recently, doctoral student Nick Longrich from the University of Calgary suggested that not only could Archaeopteryx fly, but that this creature used four limbs to accomplish the feat! (see Than, 2006). Ker Than reported: “The earliest known bird had flight feathers on its legs that allowed it to use its hindlimbs as an extra pair of wings, a new study finds” (2006). The MSNBC news report concluded:

Longrich speculates that the hindlimb feathers might have served other roles in addition to flight. Like modern pigeons, kittiwakes and vultures, Archaeopteryx’s hindlimb feathers might have acted as airbrakes, or perhaps stabilizers, control surfaces or flaps, Longrich writes. Scientists don’t know when in their evolutionary history birds switched from a “four winged” design to a two-wing one, but it’s thought that hindlimb wings were sacrificed in order to free up legs for other functions, such as running, swimming and catching prey. “The idea that a multi-winged Archaeopteryx has been around for more than a century, but it has received little attention,” Longrich said. “I believe one reason for this is that people tend to see what they want or expect to see. Everybody knows that birds don’t have four wings, so we overlooked them even when they were right under our noses” (Than, 2006).

So let’s get this straight. We are not sure whether Archaeopteryx’s feathers are real. We are not sure if this creature could actually fly. We don’t know if it used two wings or four limbs. We don’t know the location or how the fossils were procured. But we are absolutely sure it is the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. That sounds reasonable. While Longrich’s theory may help those who are desperately trying to get Archaeopteryx off the ground, consider the real conundrum in which evolutionists find themselves when it comes to flight. They must explain the origin of flight not only in birds, but also in insects, mammals (bats), and reptiles (pterodactyls). The four-limbed theory offers little solution to the overall problem of how four different types of creatures each independently evolved the ability to fly.

With so many challenges facing this crucial link, it is no surprise that evolutionists have turned to other fossilized remains in support of their dinosaur-to-bird theory. For instance, recent discoveries from China have breathed new life into this debate. Creatures such as Confuciusornis, Sinosauropteryx, Caudipteryx, and the newly discovered Psittacosaurus have been described as possessing “protofeathers.” However, ornithologist Alan Feduccia does not believe the data support the theory of feathered dinosaurs. In a recent press release from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, David Williamson commented on Feduccia’s current research. Williamson noted:

No good evidence exists that fossilized structures found in China and which some paleontologists claim are the earliest known rudimentary feathers were really feathers at all, a renowned ornithologist says. Instead, the fossilized patterns appear to be bits of decomposed skin and supporting tissues that just happen to resemble feathers to a modest degree” (2005, emp. added).

Williamson went on to quote Feduccia, who noted, “But to say dinosaurs were the ancestors of the modern birds we see flying around outside today because we would like them to be is a big mistake” (2005, emp. added). Mistake indeed!

This bold statement comes after Feduccia’s research team completed a study in which they proved these alleged “protofeathers” were nothing more than collagen. Williamson observed:

Using powerful microscopes, the team examined the skin of modern reptiles, the effects of decomposition on skin and the fossil evidence relating to alleged feather progenitors, also known as “protofeathers.” They found that fossilized patterns that resemble feathers somewhat also occur in fossils known not to be closely related to birds and hence are far more likely to be skin-related tissues, Feduccia said. Much of the confusion arose from the fact that in China in the same area, two sets of fossils were found. Some of these had true feathers and were indeed birds known as “microraptors,” while others did not and should not be considered birds at all. “Collagen is a scleroprotein, the chief structural protein of the connective tissue layer of skin,” he said. “Naturally, because of its low solubility in water and its organization as tough, inelastic fiber networks, we would expect it to be preserved occasionally from flayed skin during the fossilization process” (2005, emp. added).

Alan Feduccia and his colleagues published a 41-page research study in the Journal of Morphology. In the original report they noted:

Our findings show no evidence for the existence of protofeathers and consequently no evidence in support of the follicular theory of the morphogenesis of the feather. Rather, based on histological studies of the integument of modern reptiles, which show complex patterns of the collagen fibers of the dermis, we conclude that “protofeathers” are probably the remains of collagenous fiber “meshworks” that reinforced the dinosaur integument. These “meshworks” of the skin frequently formed aberrant patterns resembling feathers as a consequence of decomposition. Our findings also draw support from new paleontological evidence. We describe integumental structures, very similar to “protofeathers,” preserved within the rib area of a Psittacosaurus specimen from Nanjing, China, an ornithopod dinosaur unconnected with the ancestry of birds. These integumental structures show a strong resemblance to the collagenous fiber systems in the dermis of many animals (2005, 266:125, emp. added).

In personal communication with Feduccia, he explained: “What we are referring to are the supposed finds of protofeathers, which we can show definitively are collagen fiber bundles and have nothing to do with feathers. There are true feathers (which are on birds, not feathered dinosaurs) and the so-called protofeathers, which are collagen” (2006, parenthetical item in original). In exposing where this propaganda originated, Feduccia speculated the hype began in 1996. As Williamson reported:

Although a few artists depicted feathered dinosaurs as far back as the 1970s, Feduccia said the strongest case for feathered dinosaurs arose in 1996 with a small black and white photo of the early Cretaceous period small dinosaur Sinosauropteryx, which sported a coat of filamentous structures some called “dino-fuzz.” “The photo subsequently appeared in various prominent publications as the long-sought ‘definitive’ evidence of dinosaur ‘feathers’ and that birds were descended from dinosaurs,” he said. “Yet no one ever bothered to provide evidence—either structural or biological—that these structures had anything to do with feathers.In our new work, we show that these and other filamentous structures were not protofeathers, but rather the remains of collagenous fiber meshworks that reinforced the skin” (2005, emp. added).

Feduccia, an evolutionist, and his colleagues do not stop by simply dismissing the alleged “protofeathers.” They also admit there are lots of “obstacles” that remain for the alleged dinosaur-to-bird theory:

It would not tax the imagination to engender a long list of obstacles for the now dominant model of a theropod origin of birds, including, but not limited to: the fact that early theropods (e.g., Triassic Herrerasaurus) are highly specialized obligate bipeds (with arms reduced to 1/2 the length of the hindlimbs); the fact that the stratigraphic sequence of bird-like theropods has been almost the reversal of the expected evolutionary sequence leading to birds; the fact that the earliest described “feathered dinosaur” is the unbird-like compsognathid Sinosauropteryx, devoid of any preserved structures that can be shown to be feather-like; the fact that any downy-like integumentary covering in a terrestrial theropod would be maladaptive; the fact that flight feathers arranged precisely on the hand as in modern birds are present in microraptors and the basal oviraptosaur Caudipteryx; the fact that many of the derived characters or synapomorphies linking birds and theropods are in question, including notably but not limited to: the sliding lower jaw joint of theropods (absent in birds), the theropod ascending process of the astragalus (distinctive from the avian pretibial bone), and the digital mismatch (1,2,3 theropod vs. 2,3,4 bird hand), etc., to mention a few (Feduccia, et al., 2005, 266:126, emp. added).

Indeed, there are many scientific facts that must be overcome for one to accept the dinosaur-to-bird theory. Given that Archaeopteryx is now a mainstay in biology textbooks, one wonders how data surrounded by so much controversy (and full of so many holes), could possibly be passed off as “factual” to college students. Maybe it has something to do with the evolutionary theory’s inability to explain adequately the origin of birds and flight. Undoubtedly, Archaeopteryx will continue to be proclaimed as a “missing link,” as it is the only possible solution to the nagging question from whence birds evolved.

However, in personal communication with Feduccia, he declared: “Archaeopteryx was clearly a well developed bird, with true feathers” (2006). Years earlier Feduccia proclaimed: “Paleontologists have tried to turn Archaeopteryx into an earth-bound, feathered dinosaur. But it’s not. It is a bird, a perching bird. And no amount of ‘paleobabble’ is going to change that” (as quoted in Morell, 1993, 259:764). Nevertheless, speculations will continue and the mainstream media will persist in labeling the Archaeopteryx as an evolutionary missing link. Your children and grandchildren will continue to be exposed to this fallacious claim through clever marketing schemes. Why? Because nature abhors a vacuum, and until evolutionists have a replacement for Archaeopteryx they will continue to defend their shaky house of cards.


Feduccia, Alan (2006), Personal Communication to Brad Harrub, October 4.

Feduccia, Alan, Theagarten Lingham-Soliar, and J. Richard Hinchliffe (2005), “Do Feathered Dinosaurs Exist? Testing the Hypothesis on Neontological and Paleontological Evidence,” Journal of Morphology, 266:125-166, October.

Gibbons, Ann (1996), “New Feathered Fossil Brings Dinosaurs and Birds Closer,” Science, 274:720-721, November 1.

Leinfelder, Reinhold (2006), “Archaeopteryx: The Lost Evidence,” Science, 312:197-198, April 14.

Mayr, Gerald, Burkhard Pohl, and D. Stefan Peters (2005), “A Well-Preserved Archaeopteryx Specimen with Theropod Features,” Science, 310:1483-1486, December 2.

Morell, Virginia (1993), “Archaeopteryx: Early Bird Catches a Can of Worms,” Science, 259:764-765, February 5.

Ostrom, John H. (1970), “Archaeopteryx: Notice of a ‘New’ Specimen,” Science, 170:537-538, October 30.

Ostrom, John H. (1974), Archaeopteryx and the Origin of Flight, Quarterly Review of Biology, 49:27-47.

Ostrom, John H. (1975), “The Origin of Birds,” Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 3:55-61.

Ostrom, John H. (1976), “Archaeopteryx and the Origin of Birds,” Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society, 8[2]:91-182, June.

Than, Ker (2006), “Study: Ancient Bird Used Four Wings to Fly,” MSNBC, September 22, [On-line], URL:

Williamson, David (2005), “Latest Study: Scientists Say No Evidence Exists that Therapod Dinosaurs Evolved into Birds,” University of North Carolina News Service, [On-line], URL:

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