As usual, once upon a time things were simple. Archaeopteryx
was by default the first "bird", and everything traditionally called a "bird" was closer to it than to anything traditionally not called a "bird".
Then stuff happened. Other basal paravians started popping out of the ground, and they were all pretty similar to the general body plan of Archaeopteryx
. When these were included in phylogenetic analyses, sometimes Archie would jump. Sometimes it would be a deinonychosaur, sometimes it would be a paravian that was neither a deinonychosaur nor an avialan. Sometimes it didn't jump, but some of the other Archaeopteryx
-like paravians did.
And that was earth-shattering. All because Archaeopteryx
may not have been a "bird", or maybe not the earliest known "bird". News articles worldwide and all over the internet broadcast these astonishing results. Whenever a new analysis came out, it would hit the paleontological headlines because it either said Archaeopteryx
wasn't really a "bird" or was actually a "bird" after all.
But here's the thing: It. Doesn't. Matter.
There is a massive fixation on exactly where Archaeopteryx
sits, but that's only because we have affixed the "bird" label to its conventional spot. An entirely different post could be written on how the term "bird" can be used, but let's get to the bottom of the issue here: all the tentative phylogenetic positions for Archaeopteryx aren't that far apart
. Megaraptorans being tyrannosauroids, that
is a big change; Balaur
being an avialan, that
is a big change; Archaeopteryx
being a non-avialan paravian? Not that big or surprising of a change at all. Shit doesn't hit the fan whenever Deinonychus
hops between being a velociraptorine and a non-velociraptorine eudromaeosaur or when Thescelosaurus
becomes a little more or less derived of an ornithopod; it's only when Archaeopteryx
skips between a couple twigs that we get such uproar, because we've put artificial emphasis on its traditional title.
That doesn't mean it's not worthwhile to resolve the phylogenetic positions of Archaeopteryx
and similar paravians as best we can or that Archaeopteryx
isn't an important taxon to study, but putting special significance on whether or not it happens to be in the right place to be called a "bird" loses the forest for the trees. The real takehome message of paravian phylogeny is that the ancestral paravian was probably something similar to Archaeopteryx
et al. That's something all these different phylogenies agree on, wherever Archaeopteryx
As an aside, basal ornithopods are some of the angriest-looking dinosaurs I know of. It's no surprise that "Grumpy Hypsilophodon"
is a meme.
Yes, the news bulletin is directly copied from a Tumblr post
of mine on the same topic.