Palaeontology: An icon knocked from its perch

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As sesquicentennial celebrations commemorate the discovery of Archaeopteryx as a historical symbol of evolution and the oldest fossil bird, new work shakes the dinosaur family tree — and our view of this icon. See Article p.465

At a glance


  1. Archaeopteryx.
    Figure 1: Archaeopteryx.

    For 150 years, the Jurassic fossils of Archaeopteryx have been a textbook example of an evolutionary transition. From Plate 1 in ref. 11.

  2. A cluster of feathered dinosaurs.
    Figure 2: A cluster of feathered dinosaurs.

    Archaeopteryx has historically been regarded as the most basal bird (avialan), but the discovery of the closely related Xiaotingia led Xu et al.1 to pull these archaeopterygids out of avialans (birds) and into deinonychosaurs along with dromaeosaurids and troodontids. This new grouping better accounts for the evolution of feeding strategies among bird-like dinosaurs. Previous research10 suggested that herbivory was common among this group, as reflected in the tall, boxy skulls of oviraptorosaurs and basal avialans such as Epidexipteryx. The triangular, sharp-toothed skull of Archaeopteryx was incongruous among basal avialans, but fits better among the carnivorous dromaeosaurids and troodontids.


  1. Xu, X., You, H., Du, K. & Han, F. Nature 475, 465470 (2011).
  2. Norell, M. A. & Xu, X. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 33, 277299 (2005).
  3. Li, Q. et al. Science 327, 13691372 (2010).
  4. Xu, X. et al. Chinese Sci. Bull. 54, 430435 (2009).
  5. Hu, D., Hou, L., Zhang, L. & Xu, X. Nature 461, 640643 (2009).
  6. Witmer, L. M. in Mesozoic Birds (eds Chiappe, L. M. & Witmer, L. M.) 330 (Univ. California Press, 2002).
  7. Paul, G. S. Predatory Dinosaurs of the World (Simon & Schuster, 1988).
  8. Wellnhofer, P. Archaeopteryx: the Icon of Evolution (Verlag Dr. Friedrich Pfeil, 2009).
  9. Ostrom, J. H. Biol. J. Linn. Soc. 8, 91182 (1976).
  10. Zanno, L. E. & Makovicky, P. J. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 232237 (2011).
  11. Owen, R. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 53, 3347 (1863).

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  1. Lawrence M. Witmer is in the Department of Biomedical Sciences, Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio 45701, USA.

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