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KU takes center stage in bird-dinosaur debate
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LAWRENCE, Kan.--Larry Martin expects his work to ruffle some feathers among people who believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs.
Martin, senior curator at the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas, recently co-authored a study with several other scientists on "Longisquama insignis," a small reptile with feathers that glided among the trees some 220 million years ago in what is now central Asia.
Because Longisquama, a contemporary of the earliest dinosaurs, existed some 75 million years before the first birds, Martin says he believes it--not dinosaurs--was among birds' first ancestors. And, unlike early dinosaurs, fossils of Longisquama show the same unique sheath that surrounds growing
feathers in modern birds.
"Everything you can make out is consistent with it being a small, tree-living, gliding animal, which is precisely the thing you'd expect birds to evolve out of," Martin says.
The results of the study appear in the June 23 issue of the journal Science.
Martin's conclusion that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs is going against popular opinion. Practically everyone--from established scientists to best-selling authors and major Hollywood directors--tends to believe the theory that dinosaurs were birds' earliest ancestors. Martin says that is just wishful thinking.
"People want to believe that birds came from dinosaurs because it would mean that dinosaurs aren't really extinct," Martin says. "People want to believe that the parakeet in a cage is a cousin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex."
If Martin wants an informed opinion to dispute his claims that birds and dinosaurs are not of the same feather, all he has to do is open his office door in the Natural History Museum and call out for David Burnham.
Burnham, a KU paleontologist, has an office next door to Martin's. But when it comes to the bird-dinosaur debate, they are worlds apart.
Burnham recently assembled "Bambiraptor feinbergi," a 3-foot-tall skeleton of a 75 million-year-old dinosaur that had a roadrunner's body, birdlike shoulders, and long-clawed arms that folded like wings. Bambiraptor also had a large brain that shares several traits with modern birds. More than 90 percent of Bambiraptor's skeleton was recovered, making it the most complete birdlike dinosaur ever found. Burnham insists that the discovery of Longisquama will not change his belief that birds evolved from dinosaurs.
"I'm not convinced that those structures are proto-feathers," Burnham says of Longisquama. "They look more like hard scale-like structures that are attached to the ribs and do not cover the body like feathers would."
To Burnham, the questions Longisquama raises have more to do with the origins of flight--not necessarily the origins of birds.
"It's not going to help either side of the debate," Burnham says. "But it will raise the question of whether flight evolved from the ground up, like Bambiraptor, or whether it evolved by parachuting down from the trees like Longisquama may have done."
Regardless of one's beliefs on the origins of birds, Martin says, there is so much new information appearing that a definitive answer should be reached within the next five to ten years.
Until then, scientists around the world will take sides in a debate whose dividing line runs right through KU's Natural History Museum, where Martin and Burnham stand firmly on opposite sides of the bird-dinosaur fence.
Still, they both agree on one thing: KU is quickly taking a role at the center of the controversy.
"One of the wonderful things at the University of Kansas is that we have the best evidence for both sides of the debate," Martin says. "And, of course, you have to remember that KU has been one of the world's leaders in paleontology for the last 100 years."
Burnham, who just returned from a two-week visit to China, where he presented a paper on Bambiraptor and visited sites where other birdlike dinosaurs were discovered, says he looks forward to the heated discussions that he and Martin often have.
"I enjoy it immensely," Burnham says. "We don't take these things as a personal affront. In fact, your arguments get tighter and you are constantly tested every day, so it makes the arguments stronger from both sides."
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