Theory in Biosciences

, Volume 132, Issue 4, pp 267–275 | Cite as

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

Original Paper

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Alfred Russel Wallace Evolution Dinosaurs Birds Archaeopteryx Ernst Mayr 

References

  1. Bakker RT (1968) The superiority of dinosaurs. Discovery 3:11–22Google Scholar
  2. Brochu CA, Norell MA (2001) Time and trees: A quantitative assessment of temporal congruence in the bird origins debate. In: Gauthier J, Gall LF (eds) New perspectives on the origin and early evolution of birds. Yale Peabody Museum, New Haven, pp 511–535Google Scholar
  3. Buffetaut E (2011) Samrukia nessovi, from the Late Cretaceous of Kazakhstan: a large pterosaur, not a giant bird. Annales de Paléontologie 97:133–138CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Charig AJ, Greenway F, Milner AC, Walker CA, Whybrow J (1986) Archaeopteryx is not a forgery. Science 232:622–626PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chiappe LM (2004) The closest relatives of birds. Ornitología Neotropical 15:101–116Google Scholar
  6. Chiappe LM (2007) Glorified dinosaurs: the origin and early evolution of birds. John Wiley and Sons, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  7. Chiappe LM (2009) Downsized dinosaurs: the evolutionary transition to modern birds. Evo Edu Outreach 2:248–256CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chiappe LM, Witmer LM (2002) Mesozoic birds: above the heads of dinosaurs. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  9. Chiappe LM, Norell MA, Clark JM (1998) The skull of a relative of the stem-group bird Mononykus. Nature 392:275–278CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Clark JM, Norell MA, Chiappe LM (1999) An oviraptorid skeleton from the Late Cretaceous of Ukhaa Tolgod, Mongolia, preserved in an avian-like brooding position over an oviraptorid nest. American Museum Novitates 3265:1–36Google Scholar
  11. Colbert EH (1961) Dinosaurs: Their discovery and their world. WW Dutton, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  12. Dal Sasso C, Maganuco S, Buffetaut E, Mendez MA (2005) New information on the skull of the enigmatic theropod Spinosaurus, with remarks on its size and affinities. J Vertebr Paleontol 25:888–896CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dececchi TA, Larsson HCE (2011) Assessing arboreal adaptations of bird antecedents: testing the ecological setting of the origin of the avian flight stroke. PLoS ONE 6:e22292PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Erickson GM, Curry-Rogers K, Yerby SA (2001) Dinosaurian growth patterns and rapid avian growth rates. Nature 412:429–433PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Erickson GM, Rauhut OWM, Zhou Z, Turner AH, Inouye BD, Hu D, Norell MA (2009) Was dinosaurian physiology inherited by birds? Reconciling slow growth in Archaeopteryx. PLoS ONE 4:e7390PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Feduccia A (1999) The origin and evolution of birds. 2nd edn. Yale University Press, New HavenGoogle Scholar
  17. Fowler DW, Freedman EA, Scanella JB, Kambic RE (2011) The predatory ecology of Deinonychus and the origin of flapping in birds. PLoS ONE 6:e28964PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Grellet-Tinner G, Makovicky P (2006) A possible egg of the dromaeosaur Deinonychus antirrhopus: phylogenetic and biological implications. Can J Earth Sci 43:705–719CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Grellet-Tinner G, Chiappe LM, Norell M, Bottjer D (2006) Dinosaur eggs and nesting behaviors: their paleobiological inferences. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 232:294–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Haffer J (2007) Ornithology, evolution, and philosophy. The life and science of Ernst Mayr 1904–2005. Springer Verlag, Berlin/HeidelbergGoogle Scholar
  21. Heilmann G (1926) The origin of birds. HFG Witherby, LondonGoogle Scholar
  22. Hossfeld U, Olsson L, Breidbach O (2003) Editorial: Carl Gegenbaur (1826–1903) and his influence on the development of evolutionary morphology. Theory Biosci 122:105–108CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Houck MA, Gauthier JA, Strauss RE (1990) Allometric scaling in the earliest fossil bird, Archaeopteryx lithographica. Science 247:195–198PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hu D, Hou L, Zhang L, Xu X (2009) A pre-Archaeopteryx troodontid theropod from China with long feathers on the metatarsus. Nature 461:640–643PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Huxley TH (1868a) Remarks upon Archaeopteryx lithographica. Proc Zool Soc Lond 16:243–248Google Scholar
  26. Huxley TH (1868b) On the animals which are most nearly intermediate between birds and reptiles. Geol Mag 5:357–365CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Huxley TH (1870) Further evidence of the affinity between the dinosaurian reptiles and birds. Quart J Geol Soc 26:12–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hwang SH, Norell MA, Ji Q (2002) New specimens of Microraptor zhaoianus (Theropoda: Dromaeosauridae) from Northeastern China. American Museum Novitates 3381:1–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kutschera U (2003) A comparative analysis of the Darwin—Wallace papers and the development of the concept of natural selection. Theory Biosci 122:343–359Google Scholar
  30. Kutschera U (2009) Symbiogenesis, natural selection, and the dynamic Earth. Theory Biosci 128:191–203PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kutschera U (2013) Evolution. In: Maloy S, Hughes K (eds) Brenner’s Encyclopedia of genetics, vol 2. Elsevier, New York, pp 541–544CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lee MSY, Worthy TH (2012) Likelihood reinstates Archaeopteryx as a primitive bird. Biol Lett 8:299–303PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Li Q, Gao KQ, Meng Q, Clarke JA, Shawkey MD, D’Alba L, Pei R, Ellison M, Norell MA, Vinther J (2012) Reconstruction of Microraptor and the evolution of iridescent plumage. Science 335:1215–1219PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Martin LD (2004) A basal archosaurian origin for birds. Acta Zool Sinica 50:978–990Google Scholar
  35. Mayr E (2001) What evolution is. Basic Books, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  36. Mayr G, Phol B, Hartman S, Peters DS (2007) The tenth skeletal specimen of Archaeopteryx. Zool J Linn Soc B 149:97–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Milner ARC, Harris JD, Lockley MG, Kirkland JI, Matthews NA (2009) Bird-like anatomy, posture, and behavior revealed by an Early Jurassic theropod dinosaur resting trace. PLoS ONE 4:e4591PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Naish D (2011) Glorified dinosaurs: the origin and early evolution of birds (Book review). Hist Biol 23:435–438CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Naish D, Dyke G, Cau A, Escuillié F, Godefroit P (2012) A gigantic bird from the Upper Cretaceous of Central Asia. Biol Lett 8:97–100PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Norell MA, Xu X (2005) Feathered dinosaurs. Annu Rev Earth Planet Sci 33:277–299CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Norell MA, Clark JM, Chiappe LM, Dashzeveg D (1995) A nesting dinosaur. Nature 378:774–776CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. O’Connor PM, Claessens LPAM (2005) Basic avian pulmonary design and flow-through ventilation in non-avian dinosaurs. Nature 436:253–256PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Ostrom JH (1969) Osteology of Deinonychus antirrhopus, an unusual theropod from the Lower Cretaceous of Montana. Peabody Museum of Natural History Bulletin 30:1–165Google Scholar
  44. Ostrom JH (1973) The ancestry of birds. Nature 242:136CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Padian K, de Ricqlès A (2009) L’origine et l’évolution des oiseaux: 35 années du progrès. Comptes Rendus Pal Evol 8:257–280CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Paul GS (2002) Dinosaurs of the air: the evolution and loss of flight in dinosaurs and birds. Johns Hopkins University Press, BaltimoreGoogle Scholar
  47. Perez-Moreno BP, Sanz JL, Buscalioni AD, Moratalla JJ, Ortega F, Raskin-Gutman D (1994) A unique multitoothed ornithomimosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Spain. Nature 370:363–367CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Perle A, Norell MA, Chiappe LM, Clark JM (1993) Flightless bird from the Cretaceous of Mongolia. Nature 362:623–626CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Prum RO (2002) Why ornithologists should care about the theropod origin of birds. Auk 119:1–17Google Scholar
  50. Senter P, Robins JH (2003) Taxonomic status of the specimens of Archaeopteryx. J Vertebr Paleontol 23:961–965CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Sereno PC (1999) The evolution of dinosaurs. Science 284:2137–2147PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Sereno PC (2001) Alvarezsaurids: Birds or ornithomimosaurs? In: Gauthier J, Gall LF (eds) New perspectives on the origin and early evolution of birds. Yale Peabody Museum, New Haven, pp 363–385Google Scholar
  53. Sereno PC, Dutheil DB, Iarochene M, Larsson HCE, Lyon GH, Magwene PM, Sidor CA, Varricchio DJ, Wilson JA (1996) Predatory dinosaurs from the Sahara and the Late Cretaceous faunal differentiation. Science 272:986–991PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Sereno PC, Martinez RN, Wilson JA, Varricchio DJ, Alcober OA, Larsson HCE (2008) Evidence for avian intrathoracic air sacs in a new predatory dinosaur from Argentina. PLoS ONE 3:e3303PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Therrien F, Henderson DM (2007) My theropod is bigger than yours … or not: estimating body size from skull length in theropods. J Vertebr Paleontol 27:108–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Van Tuinen M (2009) Birds (Aves). In: Blair Hedges S, Kumar S (eds) The timetree of life. Oxford University Press, New York, pp 409–411Google Scholar
  57. Vargas AO, Fallon JF (2005) Birds have Dinosaur wings: the molecular evidence. J Exp Zool 304:86–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Varricchio DV, Jackson F (2004) Two eggs sunny-side up: reproductive physiology in the dinosaur Troodon formosus. In: Currie PJ, Koppelhus EB, Shugar MA, Wright JL (eds) Feathered dragons: studies on the transition from dinosaurs to birds. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp 215–233Google Scholar
  59. Wagner A (1861) Neue Beiträge zur Kenntnis der urweltlichen Fauna des lithographischen Schiefers. Abh Bayer Akad Wiss 2:67–124Google Scholar
  60. Wallace AR (1858) On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type. J Proc Linn Soc Lond 3:45–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Wallace AR (1864) On the parrots of the Malayan Region with remarks on their habits, distribution, and affinities, and the descriptions of two new species. Proc Zool Soc Lond 1864:272–295Google Scholar
  62. Wallace AR (1865) Description of new birds from the Malay Archipelago. Proc Zool Soc Lond 1865:474–481Google Scholar
  63. Wallace AR (1868) On the raptorial birds of the Malay Archipelago. Ibis (ns) 4:1–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Wallace AR (1869) The Malay Archipelago: the land of the Orang-Utan and the bird of paradise. A narrative of travel with studies of man and nature, Vols. 1, 2. MacMillan & Co, LondonGoogle Scholar
  65. Wallace AR (1889) Darwinism: an exposition of the theory of natural selection with some of its applications. MacMillan & Co, London/New YorkGoogle Scholar
  66. Wallace AR (1910) The world of life: a manifestation of creative power, directive mind and ultimate purpose. Chapman and Hall, LondonGoogle Scholar
  67. Witmer LM (2002) The debate on avian ancestry: phylogeny, function, and fossils. In: Chiappe LM, Witmer LM (eds) Mesozoic birds: above the heads of dinosaurs. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp 3–30Google Scholar
  68. Xu X, Norell M (2004) A new troodontid dinosaur from China with avian-like sleeping posture. Nature 431:838–841PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Xu X, Zhou Z, Wang X, Kuang X, Zhang F, Du X (2003) Four-winged dinosaurs from China. Nature 421:335–340PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Xu X, You H, Du K, Han F (2011) An Archaeopteryx-like theropod from China and the origin of Avialae. Nature 475:465–470PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Zheng X, Zhonge Z, Xiaoli W, Fucheng Z, Xiaomei Z, Yan W, Guangjin W, Shuo W, Xing X (2013) Hind wings in basal birds and the evolution of leg feathers. Science 339:1309–1312PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Zhou Z, Clarke JA, Zhang F (2002) Archaeoraptor’s better half. Nature 420:285PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Organismal Biology and AnatomyUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Institute of BiologyUniversity of KasselKasselGermany

Personalised recommendations