I and the Bird

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Ancestors of Modern Birds

On Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science about new discoveries of fossils of the species Gensus yumensis, an ancestor of modern birds. The discovery has been getting a lot of press, and I'm not going to try to outdeul National Geographic or NBC with a summary of the findings.

As for the actual discovery, I wasn't sold on how very important it was. The scientists presented a detailed timeline of fossils that indicated bird development, and Gansus yumensis fell at a place in the timeline that didn't really yield a whole lot of new knowledge. The fact that ancient dino-birds had moved from land to water (for reasons that weren't explained and probably not known) was already known to science. Besides filling in a gap, time-wise, in the knowledge about ancient birds, I didn't see what made Gansus so special. The scientists presentation on their knowledge of ancient birds, however, was very interesting.

The three scientists who made the discoveries, Dr. Matt Lamanna, Dr. Hai-lu You and Dr. Jerald Harris, expertly worked their way through a power-point presentation detailing the lineage of modern birds as we know it. The line starts with the discovery of Jurassic Park-looking raptor dinosaurs with feathers or feather-like structures on their body. Feathers most likely developed, the scientists explained, as a way to keep the dinosaurs warm.

Soon (well, after millions of years...so not soon at all. How about 'Gradually'), other changes were made that resulted modern birds. The bones of the foot and hand fused together into one. Air sacs that are used for buoyancy, lift and the intake of oxygen (and which also made bones very light) became more common. Skeletal aides for stronger flight muscles were enlarged. Slowly but surely, dinosaurs were taking flight and morphing into birds.

The cool thing, then, is that these changes did not go away...there are still birds around, right? That means that dinosaurs aren't really extinct, because they survived as birds. I don't necessarily agree with the scientists joke that the Audubon is really about the protection of dinosaurs, but it's a interesting thing to think about next time im out birdwatching.
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Location: Portland, ME

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