Archaeopteryx: The Trump Card of Evolution

By Jon Covey, B.A., MT(ASCP)
Edited by Anita Millen, M.D., M.P.H., M.A.

There are six known Archaeopteryx fossil skeletons in the world and one fossil feather. In 1956, before some of these skeletons had been recognized as Archaeopteryx, Adolf Portmann, a world renowned zoologist, said that these skeletons “are documents without which the idea of evolution would not be as powerful.”{1}

According to Portmann then, the evidence for evolution would be flimsier if it were not for these six skeletons.

In April this year, Dr. Robert Kofahl and I took part in a videotaped minidebate with biologists Gus McCarthy of Cal State, Dominguez Hills and Ron Kroman of Cal State, Long Beach. Exasperated, Dr. McCarthy asked what we would accept as an intermediate if not Archaeopteryx. Did it have to be 40% reptile and 60% bird, or 30%, or what??? I understand Dr. McCarthy’s frustration, because I too was once an evolutionist, and I thought creationists were either mental midgets or had brain damage.

Biologists should be more cautious about their claims. For instance, evolutionists promulgating the idea that the coccyx is a vestigial{2} organ have led surgeons to think they could be removed with impunity in patients who were having trouble with them. In our present litigious atmosphere, any surgeon who removed a coccyx, thymus or other organ based on the idea that it was vestigial and therefore unnecessary might get sued by a patient who suffered the after effects.

This being the case, one day biologists might find themselves being hauled into court by surgeons who had acted on this false information and had themselves been sued by dissatisfied patients. Although at one time more than 180 bodily parts were considered vestigial, we know now there are none; they are all necessary. It was due to ignorance that they were thus listed.

Likewise, biologists should be more cautious about what they call examples of transition. I won’t talk about the hoax of Piltdown Man, or the concoction of Nebraska Man based on a single tooth from an extinct pig. Once upon a time, the famous horse series, which is still on display at many museums, was claimed to be a perfect example of an evolutionary sequence, but these creatures are related to one another because they are similarly-shaped animals, not a series of transitions.

Dr. Duane Gish, Associate Director of the Institute for Creation Research, had this to say about this famous series:

“Horses comprise one of the most interesting mammalian groups as far as the question of origins is concerned. Almost all students are familiar with the story of horse “evolution,” beginning with Hyracotherium (Eohippus), a dog-sized “horse” with four toes on the front feet, passing via straight-line evolution through three-toed varieties, and ending with the modern one-toed Equus. But while subscribing to the evolution of the horse in general, J.B. Birdsell proclaims that “much of this story is incorrect.” Others hold the same view. George Gaylord Simpson, for example, has declared that several generations of students have been misinformed about the real meaning of the evolution of the horse.{3} The authors believe that the evolution of the horse is much more complicated than usually portrayed, and is more like a series of bushes, perhaps, than like a tree.”{4}

The problem is that many of the animals in the horse series lived at the same time, making it difficult for them to be the ancestors of one another. The rib counts of each type don’t jive with the supposed evolutionary progression. The claims for Archaeopteryx might one day succumb to similar problems, especially now that many other odd-ball birds have been discovered. As a group, they might all face the same problem of evolutionary sequencing as did the “horses.”

There is some question about whether Archaeopteryx, supposedly 150 million years old, is really the ancestor of birds. Bones of a modern bird were found in the same geological strata as Archaeopteryx by James Jensen.{5} In Science News, John Ostrom, a leading bird paleontologist, stated in response to this report: “It is obvious we must now look for ancestors of flying birds in a period of time much older than that in which Archaeopteryx lived.”{6}

Recent discoveries at the Dockum Formation near Post, Texas by Sankar Chatterjee pushed back the date of the earliest known bird to 225 million years ago based on evolutionary reckoning. Two crow-sized birds he calls Protoavis date 75 million years older than Archaeopteryx.{7} They have several features in the skull and shoulder which are more birdlike than Archaeopteryx.

Archaeopteryx couldn’t be the ancestor of birds if a more “modern” type bird than has been found in rock 75 million years older. Some paleontologists, including Ostrom,{8} already felt that Archaeopteryx wasn’t on the main line to modern birds before Protoavis was discovered. If Protoavis is more birdlike, then it would be even less of what one would want as transition form. Controversy over Protoavis has been bubbling for the last six years, and last year it surfaced in full color on the cover of the August 17, 1991 issue of Science News (a very worthwhile magazine).

Concerning Chatterjee’s long-winded paper on the bird published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Ostrom says, “Sad to say, for all its length, little support for the claim is to be found in the paper.”{9} He suggested that Chatterjee make the bones available at “the Natural History Museum laboratories at the Smithsonian Institution where it can be the subject of detailed and independent scrutiny.” It seems that is just what he has done, but at another location, for there are other paleontologists who have been able to study it firsthand. Larry Martin, paleontologist at the Museum of Natural History at the University of Kansas, says, “There’s going to be a lot of people with Archaeopteryx eggs on their face.”{10}

Details of archaeopteryx

In his book The Neck of the Giraffe—Where Darwin Went Wrong, evolutionist Francis Hitching had much to say about Archaeopteryx. He explains that every one of its supposed reptilian features can be found in various species which are undoubtedly birds.{11} Hitching brings up the following points, first presenting the usual claim and then giving some counterexamples found in modern birds:

1. It had a long, bony tail, like a reptile’s on which feathers grew.

While it is generally true that reptiles have tails, and birds appear not to, the detailed position is more complex. In embryo, some living birds have more tail vertebrae than Archaeopteryx does, which later fuse to become an upstanding bone called the pygostyle. The bone and feather arrangement on a present-day saw shows striking similarities to Archaeopteryx. According to one authority, there is no difference in principle between the ancient and modern forms: ‘the difference lies only in the fact that the caudal vertebrae are greatly prolonged. But this does not make a reptile.’

2. It had claws on its feet and on its feathered forelimbs.

But so do some modern birds, such as the hoatzin in South America and the touraco in Africa. The ostrich of today, which also has three claws on its wings, has been suggested by some experts to have more supposed reptilian features than Archaeopteryx—but nobody, of course, considers the ostrich a transitional form.

3. It had bony jaws lined with teeth.

Modern birds do not have teeth. But many ancient birds did, particularly those in the Mesozoic, and there is no suggestion that these are intermediates. It is just as convincing to argue that Archaeopteryx was an early bird with teeth [I would say it is only an extinct bird with teeth and was contemporaneous with what are now called “modern” birds].

4. It had a shallow breastbone that would have given it a feeble wing beat and poor flight.

Modern woodcreepers such as the hoatzin have similarly shallow breastbones, and this does not disqualifying them from being classified as birds. And there are, of course, many species of bird, now and in the past, which are incapable of flight.

In any case, recent examination of Archaeopteryx’s feathers at the Smithsonian Institution has shown that they are the same as those belonging to many modern accomplished fliers. ‘This implies at the very least that the beast could glide at some speed and lays to rest the notion that the feathers evolved as either heat insulation or as an aid to trapping insects.’

5. Its bones were solid, like a reptile’s, not thin or hollow like a bird’s.

Another idea that has been drastically revised. The long bones of Archaeopteryx (wings, legs) are known now to have been both thin AND hollow. It is still debated whether they were ‘pneumatized’ like a bird’s, i.e., containing an air sac.

6. It predates the general arrival of birds by sixty million years.

Until 1977, Archaeopteryx was uniquely early in the fossil record. But in that year, archaeologists from Brigham Young University discovered, in western Colorado, a fossil of an unequivocal bird, in rocks of the same period as Archaeopteryx. Professor John H. Ostrom of Yale University, who positively identified the specimen, commented: ‘It is obvious we must now look for the ancestors of flying birds in a period of time much earlier than that in which Archaeopteryx lived.’

This discovery much weakens the case for Archaeopteryx as an intermediate, and makes it that much more likely that the creature was just one of a number of strange birds living at that time. Professor Heribert-Nilsson commented forcefully that ‘they are no more reptiles than the present day penguins with their wing-fins are transitional forms to fish.’{12}

Sinornis: New Bird on the Block

EVOLUTIONISTS WING IT WITH A NEW FOSSIL BIRD cries the headline in Science magazine. “Sinornis provides…the transition from the primitive wing of Archaeopteryx to a specialized wing more like that possessed by modern birds….15 million years after Archaeopteryx lived. Sinornis had a modified wrist bone like that of modern birds, with a groove that let the wrist bend sharply back, so the wing could be tightly tucked in during flight or rest. And while Archaeopteryx had three long, claw-tipped fingers that apparently did double duty in flying and grasping prey, Sinornis had greatly reduced claws, and small hands with a sturdy middle finger, which served as the anchor for important flight feathers.”{13}

Sereno and Chenggang present the technical report on which this commentary was made (pp. 845-848), which I wanted to criticize but “time’s winged chariot has hurried near.” At least some still are convinced that Archaeopteryx is the great granddaddy of all birds and that Sinornis is a slightly modified descendant, but it is likelier that Archaeopteryx is simply another type of bird, like the Dodo, that has become extinct. Concerning Protoavis, Archaeopteryx, Sinornis, and others like them, they are a group of similarly structured birds, but in the final analysis, which will take years, it may be decided that they really don’t represent an evolutionary sequence just as the “horse” series doesn’t.

From the creationary perspective, these birds lived at the same time and died in the same global flood at almost the same time—within hours or days of each other. Let’s consider how this could be true.

Why Six archaeopteryx Fossils in the same Area?

The immense mud flow that occurred two years after the Mount St. Helens eruption eroded a channel into solid bedrock, up to 140 feet deep, within a few hours, producing a canyon system one fortieth the size of Grand Canyon. Dr. Steve Austin dubbed it the Little Grand Canyon, and even the rangers there and some evolutionary geologists have adopted the name. The material from that mud flow went into the Columbia River choking it, and the river had to be dredged to allow shipping to resume. That flow was very powerful, yet it is very tiny compared to the magnitudes of the flows that would have been part of a global flood. These flows would not mix with one another (In next month Crossfire, a friend working on his geology masters degree and I explain why), causing mixing of marine and terrestrial organisms, contrary to the claims made by opponents of a global flood. By and large, they would remain segregated. This segregation has lead evolutionists to suppose that the geological strata represent vastly different ages.

Let’s suppose a flock of Archaeopteryx were resting somewhere, temporarily free from the increasing inundation of the flood waters. Not far away, an unconsolidated limestone slurry breaks loose as the result of an earthquake or enormous tsunami or whatever and rapidly buried the birds. A few of the flock managed to take to the sky before they were overcome and managed to fly a short distance away before they fell exhausted and drowned. They were later buried by another mud flow after their bodies partially decomposed. The enveloping mud subsequently turned to rock and the bird remains fossilized; later one is discovered and called the Maxberg specimen. The six Archaeopteryx fossils come from one region: the Solnhofen limestone.

In the Scientific American article “Archaeopteryx,” Peter Wellnhofer describes the six specimens and their graves:

“The geological conditions that led to the formation of the Solnhofen limestone explain the exceptional preservation of the Archaeopteryx fossils. During the latter part of the Jurassic period, the area of what is today the southern Franconian Alb was a tropical lagoon divided into various basins by submarine reef complexes. North of this lagoon was the landmass of what is now central Germany; south of it was the Tethys Sea.”

” The region was not a South Seas paradise: the water in the lagoon was too salty and contained almost no oxygen. It was therefore inhospitable to most forms of life. Occasional storms caused floods that flowed over the southern reef barriers and carried multitudes of marine animals and plants into the basins. These died quickly in the lagoon waters, sank to the bottom and were promptly buried by layers of lime-rich mud.” [How does he know? Was he there?]

“Plants and animals from the northern landmass and its outlying islands also reached the lagoon at Solnhofen. These lands were home to many types of life: conifers, cycad ferns, ginkgo trees, insects, dinosaurs and Archaeopteryx. Tropical storms could have brought flying creatures [or the conflagration of a global flood divinely revealed by a truthful God who was there] to the lagoon by blowing them out to sea; currents could also have carried plants and animal carcasses there. Because almost no carrion feeders or microorganisms lived in the salty lagoon [he wasn’t there and doesn’t know this], dead organisms decayed little before fossilizing in the lime-rich sediments.”{14}

Predictive Power of Creationism

The Bible tells us the world perished by water. A Christian evolutionary friend asserts that creationism has no predictive power and evolution does. If one reviews Creation in the Crossfire articles, one could see that predictions have been made. I just made predictive assertions about the burial of the Archaeopteryx specimens. Someone may say that my prediction doesn’t prove anything, that’s my point. Evolutionary prediction don’t prove anything either. However, the Bible constrains what we can predict. If the Flood is true, we should see billions of fossils buried in rock layers laid down by water all over the earth, and this is what we see. We predict we would see herds of mammals, schools of fish, forests, and other large groupings buried together, and that’s exactly what we see.

We predict that bottom dwelling marine creatures would be buried together and would seldom be found in the same rocks as the mobile vertebrates. That is exactly the way it is. The Cambrian rocks have no vertebrates (although there are some, but evolutionists explain this as contamination due to reworking of sedimentary rocks—creationists would explain this as partial mixing of different streams of Flood waters).

We predict animals inhabiting the plains regions would be buried together. What does the fossil record show? Large herds of animals are found buried together, sometimes with skeletons complete and unmolested. In the famous bone bed at Agate Springs, Nebraska we can see many thousands of fossil mammals: rhinoceros, camel, giant boar, and many others buried together. A whole herd of fossilized hippopotami was found entombed in a mountain cave. Even larger gatherings can be found in Canada and other parts of the world. At Dinosaur National Monument, park rangers confess that the fantastic wall of dinosaur bones was the result of a colossal local flood.

Immanuel Velikovsky, an atheist and avid anti-creationist (much admired by my father-in-law), was also a blatant catastrophist and was shunned by dogmatic uniformitarian geologists. He believed that the past had periods of geological and astronomical upheaval unparalleled by anything ever admitted by geologists until recently. Velikovsky recognized the telltale aftermath of cataclysmic events on a scale that we would term a Biblical spectacle, and he even explained certain biblical events in natural terms and as the result of natural catastrophes. He remarks on the geological monstrosities in this way:

“Petrified bones of reptiles, birds, and mammals are often found in large unbroken areas; and since it is quite difficult to describe such areas as wading places, another explanation of the origin of fossils is sometimes offered: the animals were drowned and buried in inundations of large rivers. This explanation seems for certain cases generally closer to the truth than the wading theory; however, the size of the continental areas covered by floods imply catastrophic events on a large scale, and such events, far beyond what is observed on seasonally overflowing rivers today, again contradict the principle of uniformity.”

These things speak of gargantuan floods of Biblical proportions (and Velikovsky even says so). The huge Sicilian hippopotamus beds have been mined as a source of charcoal. On the other hand, the vast buffalo herds that once populated the Great Plains region in the United States were killed by the millions and left no fossil remains. Very few fossils are being formed in the world today because organisms are only rarely buried rapidly by mud flows which produce the conditions needed for fossilization.

There are tremendous marine fossil graveyards containing billions of fish (some seen swallowing smaller fish or caught in death throes by the cataclysmic event which enveloped them). There are billions of clams and other bivalves with shell halves still tightly closed (meaning they were buried alive) which can be found, but these things aren’t happening today. A global flood would be fully capable of producing such formations through events such as turbidity currents—the main subject of another Creation in the Crossfire article. These things may not prove global flood happened, but they do give it credence.

Creationism also predicts that billions of creatures with no transition forms would be found in the aftermath of the flood since the Bible teaches God created all the animals in a few days and not gradually over eons. Many in the Judeo-Christian community want to interpret the six days of creation as six eons. Their argument is an argument from silence. They also say that Noah’s flood was not global. The Bible says God created all the living creatures in less than six days: not much time there for gradual transformations. If their interpretation is true, that God created all things through a process of evolution, they should be able to point to unmistakable transition forms. They face the same problems as the atheist evolutionist. However, if God created all the kinds of living creatures in just a few days and then later destroyed the world by a global flood, we should find the remains of fully formed creatures with no transitions. This is what the paleontological facts show.


  1. Wellnhofer, Peter, “Archaeopteryx,” Scientific American, p. 77 (1990).
  2. “Vestigial structures are those that formerly were better developed and functional but have become of little or no use.” General Zoology by J.E. Wodsedalek, p. 450, (1963).
  3. Simpson, G.G., The Major Features of Evolution, Columbia Univ. Press, New York, p. 259 (1953).
  4. Gish, Duane, “The Origin of Mammals,” Impact, No. 87, September 1980, p. iii goes into more detail. Acts, Facts and Impacts subscriptions are available from the Institute for Creation Research, PO Box 2667, El Cajon, CA 92021 at no charge. There is more detail on the horse series in Evolution: The Fossils Still Say No, also by Dr. Gish (call 800-999-3777 to order).
  5. “The Oldest Fossil Bird: A Rival for Archaeopteryx?” Science, 199:284, (1978).
  6. “Bone Bonanza: Early Bird and Mastodon,” Science News, 112:198 (1977).
  7. “Fossil bird shakes evolutionary hypothesis,” Nature 322:677 (1986).
  8. Ostrom, John, “Origin of Birds,” lecture for MACUB Conference at Iona College, New Rochelle, New York (1983).
  9. Ostrom, John, “The bird in the bush,” Nature 353:212 (1991).
  10. Anderson, Alun, “Early Bird Threatens Archaeopteryx’s Perch,” Science, p. 35, 5 July 1991.
  11. Hitching, F., The Neck of the Giraffe: Where Darwin Went Wrong, Ticknor & Fields, New York, p. 34 (1982).
  12. ibid., pp. 33-34.
  13. “Evolutionists Wing It With A New Fossil Bird,” Science, 255:796 (1992).
  14. op cit., p. 73
  15. See Men of Science—Men of God for a fuller discussion of who these scientists were and what they believed. This book is available for sale at our meetings or by calling Master Books at 1-800-999-3777.
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