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Archive for Sunday, November 13, 2005

Feathered reptile fossil stirs evolution debate

November 13, 2005

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A new find in a remote part of southwestern Asia - bankrolled by Kansas dinosaur hunters - is adding fuel to a controversy sparked by a Kansas University paleontologist.

Last month Larry Martin, professor and senior curator at KU's Natural History Museum, received an e-mail from a Russian scientist who found a fossil of a reptile that appears to have had feathers.

The reptile is as old as the oldest dinosaur (about 220 million years), and because of the feathers it may have been able to fly or glide.

"This rains on a lot of people's parades," Martin said with a chuckle recently, as he reread the e-mail on his office computer in the museum's basement.

The e-mail was sent by Evgeny N. Kurochkin, of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Paleontologic Institute. Kurochkin led a team of researchers who traveled to Kirgizistan in southwestern Asia in search of fossils.


Kansas University graduate student Robert Elder holds a model of a longisquama, a feathered reptile that may predate dinosaurs. David Burnham, left, and Larry Martin, curator of vertebrate paleontology, look on. The model is part of a future display about the birth of flight.

Kansas University graduate student Robert Elder holds a model of a longisquama, a feathered reptile that may predate dinosaurs. David Burnham, left, and Larry Martin, curator of vertebrate paleontology, look on. The model is part of a future display about the birth of flight.

Martin and Kurochkin have known each other for years, and they organized the search team. The excursion into the remote and rugged terrain in the former Soviet republic was financed by Kansas dinosaur and fossil hunters, brothers Alan and Robert Detrich.

The excursion by Kurochkin to Kirgizistan was well worth it because of the scientific information he brought back, said Alan Detrich, former Great Bend resident now living in Lawrence, who has retired from a career of hunting dinosaur fossils. His brother has since taken over the Detrich Fossil Co. in Great Bend.

"We're just delighted that more scientific information came out of such a difficult, remote area," Detrich said. "That's a dangerous area to have to go to."

The recently found fossil appears to be feathers from a bird reptile called longisquama and similar to a fossil of longisquama feathers studied by Martin, Kurochkin and others a few years ago. The earlier fossil also was found in Kirgizistan in 1969 by a Russian scientist named A.G. Sharnov. Martin first saw the fossil in 1998 when it was on display in a Kansas City area shopping mall.

Then, five years ago, Martin, Kurochkin and a few other researchers stirred up the world of paleontology by publishing an article in a science journal that challenged a long-held theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Luck helps

Incredibly, Kurochkin's team was able to locate the same site in Kirgizistan where Sharnov found his fossil. That's because Kurochkin found and recruited a Russian scientist in Germany who had accompanied Sharnov on the 1969 trip.

"You couldn't imagine how lucky you would have to be to find any part of this animal," Martin said of the longisquama fossil. "Even finding the site was amazing because we thought it had been lost and that they'd be wandering around for days looking for a hole in the ground."

The fossils are the only ones that exist for a longisquama or its feathers, Martin said.

"The feathers are what everyone is interested in," Martin said. "We really want to get the skeleton, but certainly getting more feathers is a big deal."

Martin wants to write an article about the latest findings but first he needs to see photos of what Kurochkin has.

"It sounds like he's got a (rock) slab that had some feathers on it," Martin said. "My suspicion, from what he says, is that he has part of another wing."

Critics still there

In a box in Martin's office is a scale model of a longisquama. It's about the length and width of a modern bird, except that it looks like a small reptile with feathers. It was made by Robert Elder, a graduate student under Martin. Elder said he used paper and wire to make the creature.

Elder and Martin will be working with Tom Swearingen, former museum exhibit director, to make the model more lifelike, they said.

When Martin and his cohorts put forth the theory that, at the least, not all birds came after the dinosaur, they were criticized by the paleontologists who remained staunch supporters of the dinosaur-to-bird evolutionary link. The latest findings in Kirgizistan probably won't resolve the issue, Martin admitted.

"There are people who will quarrel with me up one side and down the other," he said.

Comments

planetwax 9 years, 1 month ago

Apparantly, God is testing our faith by laying these silly fossils around the world.

yourworstnightmare 9 years, 1 month ago

Sean and Parkay,

Are you lying or just ignorant?

yourworstnightmare 9 years, 1 month ago

This is a great article. Kudos, LJW. More of this type of reporting, on scientific findings rather than on false controversy, goes a long way to further science in the region.

ruskastud: how is "Kyrgyzstan" spelled in cyrillic or in whatever the native written alphabet is there? I am nearly certain that they don't use the roman alphabet, but I could be wrong.

Jamesaust 9 years, 1 month ago

Kyrgyzstan is sometimes spelled Kirghizia. Perhaps that's where the LJW gets their "Kirgizistan ."

Or perhaps the LJW has transliterated Đ'ÑÑĐ³ÑĐ•ÑÑ Đ°Đ½ in an usual way - Kyrgyz has migrated from Arabic script to Latin to Cyrillic (not a perfect fit).

james bush 9 years, 1 month ago

You'd think this find would be worthy of a story without warping it into a tool to berate the ID people.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 1 month ago

I didn't see any mention of or allusion to ID in this article. The headline does mention "evolution debate" but this is in reference to a real debate on evolution, not the debate over whether the psuedo-science of ID ought to be included in science classes.

Godot 9 years, 1 month ago

It is amazing to me that scientists have found a feather in stone and, from that, have identified a new species, and have developed a model of how the animal looked and behaved, yet they haven't even found any of the skeleton yet! What creativity!

james bush 9 years, 1 month ago

Just and prospector

ID wasn't mentioned---I must've just felt like a grouch!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 9 years, 1 month ago

Yes, Godot, it is creative, but any one of them would tell you that they could be proven wrong with new information-- something the ID doesn't allow, which is why it isn't science.

yourworstnightmare 9 years, 1 month ago

Sean,

Assuming you are not joking, I am appauled by your ignorance.

Yes, it is possible that birds "was" around when dinosaurs were.

Furthermore, all empirical scientific evidence indicates that humans could not "of" been.

yourworstnightmare 9 years, 1 month ago

Parkay,

I'm not sure what proof you require, but I imagine it is a slipping scale. When offered proof, you would simply say "Oh, that's not what I mean, what I mean is this other kind of proof". A hallmark of dogmatic thinking. Politicians and/or christian mullahs have said as dogma that evolution is bogus, and you bought it hook, line and sinker. It is a simple fabrication to say that there is no proof that new species derive from extant species. Either that or you are ignorant, willfully or otherwise, of the overwhelming proof.

Which is it? Are you lying or are you ignorant?

tolawdjk 9 years, 1 month ago

I just figured it out.

ID is science. Go read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Its all there.

The answer is 42, people. 42.

So long and thanks for all the fish.

Godot 9 years, 1 month ago

Interesting to see how quickly the argument devolves into namecalling and denigration, coming from the evolutionists, when someone, namely me, simply points out the role that imagination and creativity plays in the arguments that support the theory of evolution as the only possible generation of life on earth.

tolawdjk 9 years, 1 month ago

Really?

Imagination and creativity?

Your arguement is based on the supernatural.

Some mysterious higher power doesn't require imagination and creativity?

Wait, don't answer that. I already know what you will say. "It takes faith."

And no reason to feel self important. It's not you that brings out the "namecalling and denigration". It's ID in general.

fossilhunter 9 years, 1 month ago

Prospector - sorry I was offline yesterday. Nothing as exciting as digging....raking leaves.

You did a good job explaining that most fossils are bits and pieces -- not the perfectly preserved raptors from Jurassic Park (don't I wish!)

The original fossil in this story, if I recall correctly had 1 or 2 legs, partial tail and partial body. And feathers! Not a complete animal by any means, but enough to make a reconstruction like you see in the pix. It's not like one blogger suggested that the entire animal was a fabrication based on the find of a feather.

This entire process is what evolutionary biology/paleontology is all about. 2 competing theories for the origins of flight -- dinos evolving into birds/bird evolving separately from dinos from a common ancestor. Beautiful! Papers published on ea. Debate. Science! Now let's see this from ID.

Sylas 9 years, 1 month ago

Most comments to this story have misunderstood what evolution debate is being refered to. Look at the second last paragraph of the story:

QUOTE: "When Martin and his cohorts put forth the theory that, at the least, not all birds came after the dinosaur, they were criticized by the paleontologists who remained staunch supporters of the dinosaur-to-bird evolutionary link. The latest findings in Kirgizistan probably won't resolve the issue, Martin admitted."

This has been a very noisy debate between evolutionary biologists. Larry Martin and Alan Feducia are just about the last hold-outs for a theory that birds are descended from archosaurs, sharing a common ancestor with the dinosaurs. The model used by nearly everyone else is that birds are descended from theropod dinosaurs. This debate has nothing at all to do with creationism or intelligent design; and both sides are fully accepting of evolution.

Larry is quite right that this will do nothing to resolve the matter. Longisquama is not considered to be anywhere near the ancestral line for birds, except as a way out speculation by Feduccia and Martin and a few others. The most this means is that feathers have been around for a long time. See this article from June 2000 on feathers and Longisquama at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20000624/fob2.asp

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