Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Forward Into the Past!

The idea that birds descended from dinosaurs is now commonplace in the field of palaeontology and has led to the reclassification of birds as reptiles because they are thought to share common ancestry with dinosaurs, alligators and crocodiles. Consequently, as Ken Meaney of Canwest writes:

Hans Larsson of McGill University is working to produce chicken embryos with features the dinosaur descendants share with their gigantic ancestors of millions of years ago --a longer tail, teeth and clawed fingers, for instance.

The goal is to understand and illustrate evolutionary mechanisms in birds--and by extension dinosaurs, humans and all other animal life on the planet.

Two things come to mind: if he succeeds, it will be powerful evidence backing up the bird-dinosaur transition. Two: we will have some more aggressive chickens running around.Once again, it appears that hox genes are at the root of this research:

What Larsson is doing is looking for what he calls "switchpoints" in the chicken embryo's development --periods when teeth or claws, for instance, appear and then fade away as it grows.

By manipulating the chicken's development at those points, he figures to give it characteristics of its long-dead relatives.

On a genetic level, the differences between humans and other animals are small--switchpoints are what make humans human and not a fish or a fruit fly.

The amount of information that is coming out of research like this is amazing and is a stunning validation of evolutionary theory. On the other hand, if the chicken turns into a spider (think very very very bad Star Trek Next Generation episode), we have some work to do.

Now playing: The Alan Parsons Project - Don't Answer Me
via FoxyTunes


  1. Anonymous8:53 PM

    Perhaps Larsson is just using his research to genetically engineer roosters for cockfighting.

  2. Reminds me of a palaeoanthropologist by the name of John Buettner-Janusch who, in order to compensate for falling grant money, began to manufacture quaaludes in his lab. Along with the help of his graduate students, they made quite a haul until it was discovered by the authorities. He ended his days in prison.

  3. CharlesG9:27 AM

    I suspect that the evolutionary picture won't be nearly as neat as a lot of the articles tend to portray it - a simple dino-to-bird progression.

    There are already a variety of fossils that are putting birds and dinosaurs together in the same time, and I think I remember a couple articles about some research that was showing some birds moving toward reptiles.

  4. I think that is absolutely true. Prothero, himself, notes that there are at least a dozen forms that both predate and postdate Archaeopteryx that have variations on the theme, including the Tyrannosaurs, some of which had feathers.