LYING IN A DRAWER in a steel cabinet, the dark brown bones of Protoavis look like the leftovers from somebody’s Kentucky Fried Chicken lunch. There is the wishbone, over there is part of a drumstick, and this one might be a wing. Sankar Chatterjee, the vertebrate paleontologist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, lifts them gently, turning them this way and that. Holding the fossils next to modern bird bones, he says excitedly, “Look at this! They’re exactly the same.”
Chatterjee believes that this drawer of bones belongs not to just any bird but to a member of the first bird species ever—a pheasant-size creature that flew the skies over West Texas 225 million years ago, 75 million years before the currently accepted first bird. If he is right, he and Protoavis will write a new chapter in prehistory. But other paleontologists, particularly dinosaur experts, doubt that the Indian-born Chatterjee has found anything like the first bird, and his claim has touched off an acrimonious debate. In the opinion of many scientists, the bones are not those of a bird at all but rather those of a tiny tree-dwelling reptile that hadn’t even evolved feathers. A bird ancestor? Possibly. A bird? No way.
Dinosaur debates are nothing new. Since Darwin’s time, scientists have fought tooth and nail over lineage, extinction, and new species. Birds in particular have been a frequent point of contention. For much of this century, birds were thought to be the descendants of archosaurs—a large group from which dinosaurs, crocodiles, and pterosaurs were also derived. One theory held that birds and dinosaurs evolved side by side. The notion that birds evolved directly from dinosaurs—that they are the living descendants of a certain dinosaur—was proposed by a specialist from Yale University, John Ostrom. In the early seventies, he compared the 150-million-year-old bones of what was then (and still is) accepted as the earliest bird, Archaeopteryx, with those of a small dinosaur, Compsognathus. Between the two, he found 21 significant similarities. Ostrom’s idea that a bird is a living dinosaur took a while to be accepted but is now considered gospel, more or less, by most dinosaur specialists.
Chatterjee’s radical challenge to Ostrom started in the summer of 1983, when the Texas paleontologist was digging in Triassic (225-million-year-old) red beds near Post, sixty miles south of Lubbock. There he found the disarticulated remains of two animals that appeared to be small dinosaurs, but because he was collecting many specimens in a great hurry, he put the bones in a drawer to study