Book Review

Weanée Kimblewood

Luis M. Chiappe:
Glorified Dinosaurs. The Origin and Early Evolution of Birds.

Hardcover: 192 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Liss; 1 edition (February 2, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0471247235
ISBN-13: 978-0471247234
Price: 52.60 EUR

Feathered Friends from the Phanerozoic

The famous Urvogel Archaeopteryx, provided with flesh and feathers by the illustrator.

Ornithologists beware! The twittering cuties in our back gardens are, in fact, direct cousins of Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor. A recently published book reviews what we know about the origin and evolution of birds.

Tweet, tweet! Where does that cheeky robin outside your living room window come from? Who are his feathered ancestors? And who are the ancestors of those greedy feral pigeons that beg for food in our city centres? From which primeval creatures did Uncle Eagle, Aunty Seagull, Grandnephew Hummingbird and all the other chattering cousins evolve? Sophisticated aficionados of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park trilogy know the answer: birds are the cuddly offspring of fearsome carnivorous dinosaurs of the Cretaceous Period, which roamed Earth more than 65 million years ago. Look into an avian eye! Can you see the reflection of Deinonychus’ terrible killer claws and Tyrannosaurus’ carnassials?

What birds are made of

However, Spielberg’s aficionados know only half the truth: modern birds aren’t the offspring of long extinct dinosaurs – they are dinosaurs. Phylogenetically speaking, birds are theropod dinosaurs that evolved during the Mesozoic Era. The feathered lightweights of today share dozens of skeletal features with their extinct cousins. Fossils reveal digestive and cardiovascular systems that are similar to those of modern birds and, let’s not forget, the most obvious similarity: the presence of feathers.

Another spectacular discovery, recently made in Montana by US paleontologists, confirmed the long-held assumption of a close dinosaur-bird relationship. In 2005, Mary Higby Schweitzer and her colleagues at North Carolina State University found soft tissue inside the fossilized femur of a T. rex (the only soft tissue ever recovered from a dinosaur). Schweitzer’s team found strong similarities to the cellular anatomy of birds. In addition, extracts of dinosaur bone reacted with antibodies to chicken collagen (Science 25 March 2005: 1952). Two years later, Harvard Medical School researchers sequenced pieces of collagen protein from the femur. The T. rex amino acid sequences most closely matched those in the collagen of modern chickens.

Grandpa Tyrannosaurus, Cousin Chicken?

Paleontologist Luis Chiappe on a job at the other end of the world.

“Just wait a cotton-pickin’ minute!”, scream the creationists of North Carolina and elsewhere. “Evolution never happened! Earth is less than 10,000 years old! Don’t listen – science is fake!”

Yes, according to a study published in 2006 in Science, such stubbornness is becoming more prevalent in the United States, whereas the number of Darwin’s supporters is decreasing significantly. Ironically, most creationists live in places where the evidence for evolution is at its most compelling (the Hell Creek formation in Montana, which has produced impressive arrays of fossils, is one such place. The T. rex femur mentioned above was found just there – in a place surrounded by bastions of creationism).

Author to be tarred and feathered

Looking at the scientific literature published in the U.S., one can’t help brooding on extremes. No other nation on earth boasts such an abundance of medieval thinking and doubters of evolution. On the other hand, no other nation’s science writers publish such an abundance of vivid and informative books on the origin of life, on the mechanisms of natural selection and on biodiversity. A case in point for the latter is Glorified Dinosaurs, a brand-new textbook on the origin and early evolution of birds. Published in 2007 by palaeontologist Luis Chiappe, it ticks all the boxes necessary to make it outlawed in states such as North Carolina.

If so, then Chiappe would seem to be the ideal candidate to be tarred and feathered. He is Director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and considered a world authority on early bird evolution. A native of Argentina, he has conducted research on non-avian dinosaurs, pterosaurs and fossil crocodilians, and has done field work in the Gobi Desert and Patagonia. In Patagonia in 1997, Chiappe discovered a nesting site with thousands of dinosaur eggs, including fossilized embryos and fossilized skin – one of the most significant paleontological findings of the last few years.

Discussing the evolution of cherubs

Surprisingly few scientists are articulate and first-rate scientists are particularly prone to the production of incomprehensible drivel. Chiappe is a laudable exception. His magnificent opus provides a fascinating insight into how modern birds evolved from meat-eating dinosaurs, beginning with the first significant fossil discoveries 150 years ago and ending with the latest, in the fossil-rich shales of northeastern China. The reader makes the acquaintance of Thomas Henry Huxley, who, in the 1860s, became the foremost proponent of the theropod origin of birds, and of John Ostrom, whose 1960s studies of Deinonychus reopened the bird debate.

The book is printed on premium high-gloss paper and contains more than 220 brilliant full-colour photos, drawings and reconstructions of fossils and habitats, alternating with charts, maps, cladograms and pedigrees. In ten chapters Chiappe tells the fascinating story of how the lost world of feathered aviators became comprehensible thanks to extraordinary fossil discoveries.

The cute skull of the earliest and most primitive bird known. Its owner, Archaeopteryx, was similar to a chicken and lived in southern Germany around 155–150 million years ago.

Essentials such as plate tectonics, the phenomenon of convergent evolution, the process of fossilisation and the art of biological classification are clearly explained, at times with a mischievous authorial wink (for example when Chiappe argues that, despite the similar appearance of their wings, a close relationship between cherubs and birds is unlikely). One instructive passage covers the sensational Archaeoraptor which was hailed as the ultimate proof for the dinosaur-bird evolutionary connection in a National Geographic article in 1999 (a ‘discovery’ that was later exposed as a hoax and discredited reputable researchers).

The oldest pellet on Earth

In subsequent chapters we learn that T. rex himself was probably feathered (at least as a teenager), that birds are both dinosaurs and reptiles, and that the perplexing discovery of Microraptor, the “four winged dinosaur”, has rather complicated the lives of paleontologists. We get to know an ancient sap-eater, amongst whose lithified bones were found the remains of its last meal, and we can admire the oldest pellet – assumedly digested and regurgitated by a raptor 115 million years ago. The reader will also meet the famous Urvogel Archaeopteryx, the most distant relative of modern birds, looking as fresh as if it had stepped out of the Solnhofen limestone only yesterday.

Glorified Dinosaurs is a risky read. The book causes captivation, sleeplessness and dark circles around the eyes.

Letzte Änderungen: 12.07.2013