Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight

Pat Shipman, Author
Pat Shipman, Author Simon & Schuster $25 (336p) ISBN 978-0-684-81131-4
Reviewed on: 12/29/1997
Release date: 01/01/1998
Archaeopteryx is every evolutionary biologist's dream come true--an extinct species midway between reptiles and birds. Since its discovery 130 years ago, a debate has raged about whether birds are the airborne descendants of dinosaurs. Although our knowledge of this species comes from only seven specimens and a feather, several of those seven are exquisitely preserved, allowing detailed analysis of almost every aspect of Archaeopteryx anatomy. In her typically elegant prose incorporating comprehensive research, anthropologist Shipman (The Evolution of Racism) uses the interpretative controversies swirling around these fossils to provide insight into the process of evolution and the nature of scientific debate. Could Archaeopteryx fly, or could it only glide? Did feathers evolve as a thermoregulatory device or as an aerodynamic refinement? Did bird flight begin when arboreal birds jumped out of trees and glided to the ground or when ground-dwelling birds first took to the air? All of these questions, and many more, are addressed from a perspective at once scientific and historical, in a book that is as well structured as any mystery novel. While there are enough details for the avian connoisseur, the more general reader will be able to appreciate the thread of Shipman's argument even if skimming past the anatomical minutiae. As with most scientific controversies, many of the issues raised remain unresolved, which just adds to the subject's ongoing attraction. (Jan.)
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