Original Paper

Theory in Biosciences

, Volume 132, Issue 4, pp 267-275

First online:

The ornithologist Alfred Russel Wallace and the controversy surrounding the dinosaurian origin of birds

  • Nizar IbrahimAffiliated withDepartment of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, University of Chicago
  • , Ulrich KutscheraAffiliated withInstitute of Biology, University of Kassel Email author 

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Over many years of his life, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913) explored the tropical forests of Malaysia, collecting numerous specimens, including hundreds of birds, many of them new to science. Subsequently, Wallace published a series of papers on systematic ornithology, and discovered a new species on top of a volcano on Ternate, where he wrote, in 1858, his famous essay on natural selection. Based on this hands-on experience, and an analysis of an Archaeopteryx fossil, Wallace suggested that birds may have descended from dinosaurian ancestors. Here, we describe the “dinosaur-bird hypothesis” that originated with the work of Thomas H. Huxley (1825–1895). We present the strong evidence linking theropod dinosaurs to birds, and briefly outline the long and ongoing controversy around this concept. Dinosaurs preserving plumage, nesting sites and trace fossils provide overwhelming evidence for the dinosaurian origin of birds. Based on these recent findings of paleontological research, we conclude that extant birds indeed descended, with some modifications, from small, Mesozoic theropod dinosaurs. In the light of Wallace’s view of bird origins, we critically evaluate recent opposing views to this idea, including Ernst Mayr’s (1904–2005) arguments against the “dinosaur-bird hypothesis”, and document that this famous ornithologist was not correct in his assessment of this important aspect of vertebrate evolution.


Alfred Russel Wallace Evolution Dinosaurs Birds Archaeopteryx Ernst Mayr