Monday, July 21, 2008

First Bird: Another Stupid Science Headline From TOI

From Times of India (TOI) science section another stupid misleading headline: World's First Bird Discovered. Here is an excerpt

In the landmark study, published by the Paleontological Association, experts unveiled an extraordinary prehistoric lizard-like "flying" reptile which lived 235 million years ago. The scientific community believes that birds descended from reptiles 50 million years later making the kuehneosaurs the world's first "bird".

The long-extinct species, which inhabited the warm late Triassic period from 235 to 200 million years ago, was first discovered in the UK.

According to experts, the kuehneosaurs, which grew up to 2 feet, used extensions of their ribs to form large gliding surfaces on the sides of their body.

What has been discovered is not really a creature with true powered flight, but one which used extensions to form gliding surfaces, similar to the present day "flying" squirrels. True powered flight in vertebrates first evolved in the Pterosaurs, which really are true flying reptiles. But that is not what is deeply wrong with this report. This is a classic example of the much discredited but still popular thinking about evolution as a linear process. This mistaken view goes as follows; This creature is a reptile and it flew. Birds evolved from reptiles about 50 million years later than this creature lived. Therefore this creature is the first bird. But evolution generates not a ladder but a tree like structure. Kuehneosaurs and birds occupy widely separate branches on the reptile tree. All branches of the reptile tree did not transform into birds. Below is a phylogenetic tree of the diapsids, the group of reptiles that contain birds.

Source: Tree of Life Web

Kuehneosaurs or the "flying"reptiles which are the subject of this study are an extinct group within the Lepidosauromorpha. Birds on the other hand are a group within the Archosauromorpha. Although they lived and "flew" before birds evolved, Kuehnosaurs do not occupy an ancestral position with respect to birds. The best evidence indicates that birds evolved from within the maniraptors, a group of small carnivorous dinosaurs on a branch evolutionarily distant from the Keuhneosaurs. Every reptile that flew is not a bird. Flight, as has been the case many times in the history of life, evolved independently in the Keuhnosaurs , Pterosaurs and in birds.

I saved for the last another really silly aspect of reporting that is becoming quite common in the Indian media eager - or maybe desperate is a better word - to portray Indian achievements. This is how the report in TOI begins;

A group of scientists, including one of Indian origin, has discovered "world's first bird" that lived 235 million years ago.

The emphasis is mine. Did we need to know that? Does it make the report more believable? Does it make every Indian reading this puff up their chests with pride? I don't know about you but I find it plain irritating and infantile of the media to keep slipping these "Indian" achievements down my throat. I checked the abstract to find out about this "Indian" connection. The paper title reads: “The aerodynamics of the British Late Triassic Kuehneosauridae” by Koen Stein, Colin Palmer, Pamela G. Gill and Michael J. Benton and is published in the July 15th issue of Palaeontology. Ms. Gill comes closest to being the Indian origin candidate most likely having a Punjabi ancestry, but I mean who cares?? Not the author I bet. Instead why not spend a little more time understanding reptilian evolution? TOI just might come up with a more readable news report.


  1. Good one. Nice clarifying explanation from your side.


  2. phew; someone is reading this stuff!

    thanks Arunn :-)