Interesting stuff about the science of evolution and the natural world

Archive for May, 2014

Birds are dinosaurs

This idea is nothing particularly new, but when I first heard it I thought it was stretching the truth a bit – birds may have evolved from dinosaurs though surely they became something quite different. But now I’ve discovered a little more, it seems the two share so much in common they do need to be considered as one.

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In fact the idea began to take form back in the early days of evolutionary thinking. In 1868 Thomas Huxley first showed the similarities between Archaeopteryx and dinosaurs and proposed a link between the two. It was widely accepted at the time, but fell out of favour in the early twentieth century. One reason was the presence of the wishbone in birds. The wishbone is formed by the fusion of the collar bones and at that time no fossil from the dinosaurs that birds were supposed to have evolved from showed any collar bones. More recently collar bones showed up in the fossil record so the theory was back on the table again.

Even more compelling evidence has come from the discovery of some dinosaur fossils that clearly had feathers. Feathers were originally thought to be the exclusive and defining feature of birds, so this discovery certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons so to speak. Or dare I say, the dinosaur amongst the pigeons. There is good evidence to suggest that some well known dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor were feathered.

Anyway, all this has finally shown that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but what about the idea that they are dinosaurs. This becomes clearer when you look at the number of characteristics they share. Consider some bird features:

  • Possession of feathers
  • They walk on two legs
  • They have claws on their toes
  • Three toes point forwards and one back
  • Hollowed out bones form part of the respiratory system
  • They have a wishbone (exclusively amongst living animals)

All these features are also possessed by the group of dinosaurs they evolved from within. True, birds do have further exclusive adaptations, mainly associated with flying, but analysis of the large number of shared characteristics shows that they can be grouped with dinosaurs in modern classification. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, all classification is arbitrary to some extent, but if we accept some method of grouping things then it does look like we have to merge these two together.

It’s also very illuminating to consider Archaeopteryx, that wonderfully iconic early bird.

archaeopteryx

It clearly had feathered wings that were capable of flapping flight, albeit probably rather weakly, so it was undoubtedly a bird, assuming this is the trait we now use to define birds. And yet it retained many of the more primitive dinosaur features. Unlike today’s birds it had teeth, a bony tail (a modern bird’s tail is purely feathers), clawed fingers on it’s forelimbs, many back vertebrae, an unfused pelvis and unfused foot bones. It may have had wings, but bodily it was very much a dinosaur. So if Archaeopteryx was a flying dinosaur, and Archaeopteryx was also a bird, then birds are dinosaurs.

I guess it shouldn’t be such a difficult thing to accept. After all, we have no problem in calling bats flying mammals, so why not? And of course, it also means that dinosaurs never became extinct. Jurassic Park is in your garden right now.

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Chimpanzees evolved from humans

OK, so this statement is completely wrong, but it serves to illustrate the false conclusion of thinking that we are descended from chimpanzees because we evolved from an ape of some sort and they are our closest living relative. But we evolved from them no more than they from us.

What we do share is a common ancestor which we both descended from, and this makes chimpanzees our closest living cousins in species terms, but not our actual ancestors. Understanding common ancestors is vital to understanding evolution and classification, so lets go back in time to trace our little corner of the tree of life.

DNA analysis has shown that the ancestor linking us with chimps existed about six million years ago, and other evidence suggests it was certain to have lived in Africa. No fossil has been found that can be definitely attributed to it, but there are a few contenders. So, since we have no proper name let’s just call it ape A. But what did it look like? It would have been fairly close in appearance to a chimpanzee and it would have walked on four legs (using knuckle walking similar to chimps and gorillas), lived in the forest and been an excellent tree climber.

Around this time the climate began to cool a little and become dryer, meaning the forest in Africa began to thin out and in places open plain took over. This may have caused the population of ape A to become split into two, and therefore each group pursued it’s own independent evolutionary path. One group remained in the forest and so there were few external pressures for it to change – it would eventually evolve into chimpanzees. The other group must have come under some environmental pressure to cause it to change. This may have been a further thinning of the forest it was living in, but for whatever reason, it gradually evolved to become more adapted to living in the plains rather than the forest. This branch eventually became modern humans.

So ape A is the common ancestor we share with chimpanzees and makes them our closest living cousin within the animal world. It also means that the chimpanzee’s closest cousin is us, rather than any other ape. We have both had the same amount of time to evolve since ape A existed, but the reason we look so dissimilar is due to the different path that the environment led us to take – we took to the plains and became hunter gatherers instead of staying in the forests.

The next nearest living relative to us (and chimpanzees) is the gorilla and we need to go back 7 million years from present to find the ancestor we all share – call it ape B. Again it would have lived in the African forest and there would have been a split in the population somehow, one line leading to gorillas and the other to ape A, and subsequently to chimpanzees and us.

Going back even further, about 18 million years from present, we come across the common ancestor to all the great apes. Great apes comprise gibbons, orang utans, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans. They are a separate group from monkeys and the key difference is that apes have no tail whereas all monkeys do (though in a few it is almost reduced to nothing). This is a good illustration of how common ancestors are so useful in defining evolutionary paths and modern classification. If apes are defined as separate from monkeys due to their lack of tail (although it’s actually slightly more complicated than that), then this could be traced back to the one single species that lacked a tail and is ancestor to all subsequent apes.

All major groupings will have a single common ancestor at some point. So for example the first mammal species I talked about in a previous post would have had mammary glands, three bones in the ear, warm blood and fur – and this is why all mammals possess these and why we put them into a group separate from all other animals. As we go back in time there will be common ancestors to larger and larger groupings, until we reach that one first originator of all life with that one huge characteristic that all life shares – DNA.