Sunday, March 08, 2009

Taking Wing

The third nerd book I read this year, for the Science Challenge as well as to gain wisdom, was Taking Wing by Pat Shipman. It was basically a book about the fossil bird Archaeopteryx and how this fossil explains the origin of birds and the origin of flight. It was a wonderful and very well written account of all of the research on Archaeopteryx. I read this book to gain some insight on research on various hypotheses concerning flight and I got a deeper understanding of the two major competing hypotheses a) the trees down and b) the ground up. Archaeopteryx can be used as evidence for both. Was it a climber that glided down from trees or a "flapper" that could take off from the ground? The evidence is certainly ambiguous. Archaeopteryx had well developed wings and feathers, but most fossils show it lacked a well developed sternum for attachment of flight muscles. It also lacked the ability to do a "wing flip" that allows a bird to not stall as it raises its wings for another "stroke". But it's small hallux suggests that it couldn't perch in a tree like a regular bird either. There didn't seem to be trees in the immediate area where the fossils were found either. And it lacked muscles to perch effectively. But, to make a long story short, we still don't know what it could and couldn't do. It perhaps could've taken off from the ground, which is what I tend to think it did.
I can highly recommend this book. It was a very quick read and gave much insight. My only complaint is that it is a bit out of date, as it was published in 1998 and mentions quite a bit of Larry Martin and others who dispute that birds are related to dinosaurs (even though 2 of the 7 Archaeopteryx fossils were mistakenly identified as the dinosaur Compsognathus). But now that 17 species of unequivocally feathered dinosaurs have been discovered, the vast majority of paleontologists and the general public for that matter, agree that dinos are the ancestors of birds...and as my son Max says, birds are dinosaurs. The fact that Larry Martin STILL disputes the dino-bird relationship is astounding. But, I do have my own faults, and so I won't throw stones. Alan Feduccia is quoted in the book as saying " There is no evidence that dinosaurs possessed feathers. Feathers are a uniquely bird characteristic". Well, not so any more.
I enjoyed this book even more than Heilmann's Origin of Birds. Now I can't wait to read "Glorified Dinosaurs" by Louis Chappe. So many books, so little time!

1 comment:

Debi said...

Must admit that this one sounds way over my head. Nonetheless, I loved your review!