November 27, 2008
According to paleontological lore, the 19th century naturalist T.H. Huxley was carving a goose for a holiday feast when he noticed something peculiar. The anatomy of the cooked bird was very similar to that of some dinosaurs, and soon afterwards Huxley proposed that dinosaurs were the animals from which birds evolved.
It’s a great story, but unfortunately, it isn’t true. Huxley had been teaching his anatomy students that reptiles and birds were very similar anatomically as early as 1863, but he wasn’t thinking in evolutionary terms. His conception had more to do with anatomical “groundplans”; birds and dinosaurs shared a number of skeletal similarities. It was only after he read the German embryologist Ernst Haeckel’s Generelle Morphologie, published in 1866, that Huxley started to go beyond similarities and think about how birds might have evolved from reptiles.
About this time Huxley visited the museum at Oxford under the care of the geologist John Phillips. While the pair examined the skeleton of Megalosaurus there, Huxley noticed that what had been part of the dinosaur’s shoulder was really part of the hip. Once the bones were rearranged, the dinosaur seemed a lot more avian than the elephant-like creatures the anatomist Richard Owen had conceived. This fit well in Huxley’s new concept of what the dinosaurs looked like and what they were related to.
Huxley produced a slew of papers on the topic, but he did not go so far as to say that birds evolved from any known kind of dinosaur. He thought that dinosaurs like Compsognathus were proxies for what bird ancestors might look like. The fossils that had been recovered by his time revealed the general way birds had evolved, even if direct ancestor-descendant relationships were still unknown.
Even if Huxley was not inspired by a Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas goose, however, the apocryphal story has inspired some paleontologists to use their dining room tables as a classroom. When their families sit down to a holiday dinner, these scientists point out the skeletal evidence that allows everyone at the table to say they had dinosaur for dinner.
Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving!
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