Xiaotingia zhengi

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

Xiaotingia zhengi is the name of a 155 million-year-old fossil found in China and described in the latest issue of Nature. It’s a chicken-sized, feathered beast similar to Archaeopteryx. This new fossil provides us with a more detailed picture of bird evolution.

When Xiaotingia’s skeletal parameters are input to a computer-based tool that computes biological systematics, its position with respect to other bird-like fossils is revealed. Those results show Xiaotingia is a more distant relative to modern birds than Archaeopteryx but with enough significant features with Archaeopteryx to move Archaeopteryx into a new classification. This taxonomic  revaluation means that Archaeopteryx is a little less closely related to birds than previously thought.

The change in Archaeopteryx’s status has brought the creationists out of the woodwork.

Creationists claim that the change of status represents a prediction failure by evolutionary biologists. However, the precise taxonomic status of Archaeopteryx was never a specific prediction of evolutionary theory.

Each new fossil discovery refines our understanding of evolutionary theory. This new fossil enhances our understanding of avian descent from dinosaurs. The hyperbolic rantings of creationists are a sign of their desperation, indicating they know they’re losing the evolution debate. The change of Archaeopteryx, from a first cousin of birds to a second cousin, does nothing to diminish the theory of common descent or descent with modification.

Creationists like to point out that evolutionists have a problem when it comes to answering the question of how life began from non-life. This is, of course, an absurd question. No one was around at that time (or times) when life began from non-life. There is no possible way for anyone to answer this question without being present at that time and observing the event.

There is no shame in admitting “I don’t know.” The shame occurs when you make up an answer.

H/T: Pharyngula.

17 thoughts on “<i>Xiaotingia zhengi</i>”

  1. Even before small theropod dinos used them for powered flight, feathers were present and the trees were alive with small, climbing and probably gliding dinosaurs, exploiting another food-rich niche. I have read about them under their nickname ‘micro-raptors’. While up the evolutionary line by 30-40 million years they are pretty sophisticated for feathered dinosaurs.

    Previous feathered ground dwelling and tree climbing dinos, now going back at least 155 million years, are not an evolutionary contradiction. They’re just an example (as the linked article notes) of a modification useful for some things: insulation, water repellency, courtship, defense, being adapted or proving useful for other things like gliding and eventually, powered flight. Our hands weren’t specifically evolved to play piano but having hands made pianos possible.

    Scientific American special issue 2004
    The last 3 pages starting pg 79 “The Stars of the Drama”. The previous 2 pages give geo background: pgs 58 & 59


    Elaine, the small feathered raptors of our dreams- or nightmares:

  2. “There is no shame in admitting “I don’t know.” The shame occurs when you make up an answer.”

    Is not the above the truth….

  3. Scientists have been trying to crack the secret of abiogenesis for a very long time indeed. They are creeping closer, but nothing definitive yet. There was an interesting article on the subject in Scientific American in 2009. I fully believe the basis of abiogenesis will be solved before we solve the mystery of consciousness.

  4. “A lot can be explained by the interaction of lightning, chemical reactions and heat in the primordial soup of so long ago. ”

    Not a whole lot that has reached the level of scientific theory.

  5. off topic

    20-million year-old ape skull found in Uganda

    The scientists discovered the remains on July 18 while looking for fossils in the remnants of an extinct volcano in Karamoja, a semi-arid region in Uganda’s northeastern corner.

    “This is the first time that the complete skull of an ape of this age has been found. It is a highly important fossil,” Martin Pickford, a paleontologist from the College de France in Paris, told a news conference.


  6. To me, how life actually began is the lesser mystery. A lot can be explained by the interaction of lightning, chemical reactions and heat in the primordial soup of so long ago. The bigger mystery for me personally is trying to understand consciousness.

    If you want to hear a crashing silence, appear before an audience of psychiatrists and psychologist and ask, “What is consciousness?”

    Do no hold your breath waiting for an answer. BTW, I am not referring to the dictionary definition. I think of the larger picture. For example, how is spatially distributed brain activity bound into unitary objects in vision, a coherent sense of self, or ‘oneness’ with our surroundings? How does pre-consciousness meld into conscious awareness? How does ‘free will’ and subjective time flow work? Penrose observed, “…consciousness involves a factor which is neither random, nor algorithmic, and that consciousness cannot be simulated.” In other words, there are places where computer models simply do not work as an analog for the brain.

    We know that imaging tells us WHERE in the brain activity takes place during thinking and problem solving, but nothing tells us HOW those events take place.

  7. Roco,

    Scientists are working on how it might have happened. The creationists ask how it did happen.

  8. Interesting post, Nal. Ah, creationists! One has to wonder where science would be today if everyone were a creationist.

    I found the following in Nature News:

    Archaeopteryx no longer first bird
    Mounting evidence shows famous fossil more closely related to Velociraptor.
    by Matt Kaplan

    Like many similar fossils, it is surrounded by feather impressions in the rock, but has claws on the ends of its forelimbs and sharp teeth.

    These traits by themselves do little to help place the fossil in the dinosaur–bird transition, but Xu reports that it also has extremely long middle and last finger bones and a wishbone with an L-shaped cross-section at one end. These characteristics, Xu argues, identify Xiaotingia as very closely related to Archaeopteryx and another feathery relative, Anchiornis.

    After analysing the traits present in Xiaotingia and its relations, Xu and his colleagues are suggesting that the creatures bear more resemblance to the dinosaurs Velociraptor and Microraptor than to early birds, and so belong in the dinosaur group Deinonychosauria rather than in the bird group, Avialae. Many features led the team to this decision, but the most immediately noticeable are that Xiaotingia, Archaeopteryx and Anchiornis have shallow snouts and expanded regions behind their eye sockets. Microraptor has similar traits, but the early birds in Avialae have very different skulls.

  9. NAL:

    “Creationists like to point out that evolutionists have a problem when it comes to answering the question of how life began from non-life. This is, of course, an absurd question. No one was around at that time (or times) when life began from non-life”

    It is not an absurd question at all. Scientists are working on trying to figure it out. I think the origin of life is quite an interesting question, I would like know how it all started.

    Whether or not you believe in God is immaterial, it is a valid question and one that will probably be answered definitively someday.

  10. Birds provide a fascinating glimpse into our past. As I sit here watching several birds outside my window, I marvel at these tiny dinosaur descendents. The way they walk, turn their heads and defend territory give a clue into how the T-rex and other larger ancestors may have behaved and looked. Science marches on. Each new discovery adds a link to the chain.

    The earth is only six thousand years old–indeed!

    BTW, Blind Faithiness, that is a great observation and quote.

  11. Its a great discovery.

    As for the creation component, I agree with PZ when he said, “Ho hum. Science will keep on strengthening our understanding of the past with new evidence avidly sought, creationists will just keep on clamping their eyes even more tightly shut.”

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