Evolution - from Carnivore to Herbivore?

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Say hello to Falcarius utahensis.

This creature was becoming a herbivore (plant-eater), but fossils described in today’s Nature indicate his (or her) ancestors were most definitely carnivorous (meat-eaters).

The story can be read on-line here. Here’s the significant “bite”:

Caught in the act of evolution, the odd-looking, feathered dinosaur was becoming more vegetarian, moving away from its meat-eating ancestors.

It had the built-for-speed legs of meat-eaters, but was developing the bigger belly of plant-eaters. It had already lost the serrated teeth needed for tearing flesh. Those were replaced with the smaller, duller vegetarian variety.

‘I doubt seriously this animal could cut a steak with that mouth,’ said Utah state paleontologist James Kirkland, one of those who discovered the bones of the beast in east-central Utah.

This relates to the never-ending creationism saga in several ways, including one that shows an important distinction between Evolution and Creationism:

Creationists insist that, if creatures changed their eating habits in the past, it was from herbivores (before the Fall, when the Creation was Good) to carnivores (after the Fall, and the introduction of sin and death into the world).

I should mention that I went to New Mexico Tech with the discoverer, Dr. Jim “Boston” Kirkland, during the late 70’s.

Jim is a regular “Dr. Grant” type of paleontologist, and this image was most definitely reinforced when his discovery of Utahraptor came at the height of Jurassic Park-inspired interest in “raptors.”

Back in the day, between beer bashes and band gigs and classes, we even managed to get in some good field trips to the Glass Mountains of Texas, the Bisti Badlands of New Mexico, and more.

But, I digress. What features of the find indicate its transition from carnivore to herbivore? The AP article mentions this:

It ate plants, but its bones show the transition from its carnivorous ancestors while still in progress.

All plant-eating dinosaurs were ultimately descended from a meat-eater, and switchovers to plant-eating occurred several times. The newly discovered species, which lived 125 million years ago, could help scientists understand details of how the changeovers took place.

It’s ‘our first really good case of a dinosaur in the midst of shifting from the meat-eating body to a plant-eating one,’ said an expert not involved in the discovery, Thomas R. Holtz Jr. of the University of Maryland.

‘It’s definitely eating a substantial amount of plants, (but) we still see the original imprint of meat-eating upon it.’

The find will be presented in Thursday’s Nature. The AP article also mentions that

… analysis revealed that Falcarius was the earliest known member of a bizarre-looking group of plant-eaters called therizinosaurs (pronounced THAY-rih-ZY-no-sores.) Found mostly in Asia, the barrel-bodied creatures waddled upright like Godzilla or ‘a pot-bellied bear,’ Kirkland said.

Falcarius, very early in its evolution into the therizinosaur body type, retained the rather horizontal posture and powerful legs of its meat-eating ancestors. And its teeth were more suited for eating plants, [Utah scientist Lindsay] Zanno said.

It also showed some change toward the larger gut needed to digest plant material rather than meat, as well as a lengthened neck and smaller head associated with eating plants, she said.

Holtz said Falcarius still had fairly slender proportions overall rather than the barrel body of later therizinosaurs. ‘This one could probably move fairly quickly,’ he said, whereas its more evolved relatives ‘would have had problems hunting things faster than a tree.’

Kirkland and Zanno said they suspect Falcarius probably ate some meat in addition to plants.

‘I wouldn’t doubt this thing would eat a lizard or two in a pinch,’ Kirkland said.

The Nature article has some more “meat” to it:

The creature’s teeth have a shape that seems to be adapted to leaf shredding, the researchers report. Similar teeth can be found in modern iguanas, for example, a reptilian family that also has a varied diet.

Falcarius utahensis also has a slightly widened pelvis, Kirkland’s team points out, which would have been necessary to accommodate the longer gut needed to extract nutrients from plants.

But the dinosaur’s legs reveal that it still has adaptations suited for meat eating as well. The creature’s thigh bones were longer than its shin bones, suggesting that it could run at an impressive pace. “The legs are still adapted for running after prey,” says Kirkland. Later therizinosauroids have longer shin bones, which suggests that they waddled around like long-legged birds.

The real nitty-gritty is in the Nature paper itself, of course. A sample:

The dentary teeth share several features with the teeth of other therizinosauroids (Fig. 2). Similarities include posteriorly small, lanceolate and basally constricted crowns that become taller anteriorly, as well as the presence of inflated, circular roots. … A phylogenetic analysis (Fig. 3) provides strong support for the hypothesis that Falcarius is the basalmost therizinosauroid known.

Translation: yes, this creature really is related to the plant-eating therizinosauroids which came later. It is a transitional fossil!

And there we have it - a real test of Creation versus Evolution!

The standard creationist claim that all creatures were originally vegetarian appears all over the web. Here is one example:

The Bible teaches the following. People and animals alike were given plants to eat in the beginning (Genesis 1:29–30). There was no meat-eating before the Fall, whether by man or by animal. The carnivorous part of the present ‘food chain’ did not exist. And God appropriately described His creation as ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31).…

As mentioned already here at the Thumb, Steve said

the week won’t end without Answers In Genesis claiming that it somehow destroys evolution and confirms creationism.

A good prediction! I’ll wager that claim will involve this observation from the AP article:

Bones from hundreds or maybe thousands of these dinosaurs were discovered at a two-acre dig site in east-central Utah, south of the town of Green River. Nobody knows why they gathered there or what killed them, Kirkland said.

I’ll bet a virtual brew that Answers in Genesis will be touting this as evidence of “The Great World-wide Flood,” while conveniently overlooking that sticky point about some dinosaurs becoming herbivores after the Fall, contrary to Scripture.

I’m inviting Prof. Steve Steve to break away from Kansas to visit New Mexico later this summer, and collaborate with me on the Definitive Proof that there ain’t no way the Fossil Record is compatible with a single, Noachian deluge. But that will be down the road a month or two. Come on down, Prof. Steve Steve!

As always, please observe the Panda’s Thumb Comment Integrity policy. (In other words, Play nice, people! And stay on topic!)

2 TrackBacks

(Dave Thomas has another take on this discovery at the Panda's Thumb.) It's another transitional fossil! This one won't cause the creationists much discomfort, though, since it is transitional between two extinct groups and they can ther... Read More

I've been a little under the weather this week, so I haven't completed my next installment of Marketing Biology. However, I have seen two articles whose headlines and first paragraphs are like those that every article on evolution should have.... Read More

61 Comments

I have to say, I’m proud of my state. While amateur Utahns with shovels are in Mexico looking for steel and horses buried in Aztec ruins to prove the Book of Mormon, we’ve made a fair amount of paleontological discoveries back here in Zion. Trying to debunk a YEC claim is fruitless. The thing is, they are so thoroughly debunked that those who believe in a young Earth are the types who don’t listen to facts anyway. I doubt this will phase Hovind and his dinasaur watchers.

Where does this dinosaur fit into the dinosaur bird transition? Is it a very recent find?

I’m confident that the creationists will pretend that this dino supports them, but I can’t get to their sites. IDtheFuture seems to be down.

Where does this dinosaur fit into the dinosaur bird transition? Is it a very recent find?

It’s from the early Cretaceous, and thus about 127 to 121 Millions of years old (the Barremian sub-division of the early Cretaceous period).

The Nature article shows the detailed phylogeny. Falcarius is a sister group with herbivorous oviraptors, and more distantly to the raptors, which include Archaeopteryx, Confuciusornis and other creatures related to early birds. Falcarius is still more distantly related to the ostrich-like dinosaurs (Struthiomimus), and even more so to Tyrannosaurs, Allosaurs, etc.

The Tree of Life is an excellent resource for such questions.

Steve is correct.

many of the primary ID sites seem to either have their sql servers incapacitated, or are having some sort of DNS error.

interesting.

It’s probably because they forgot to plan for the increase in traffic generated by Kansas Kangaroo.

However, when they finally get “it” back up again, they will probably claim some sort of terrorist attack by those “atheistic darwimps!”

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If you’re so certain that you’re scientifically correct, why are you so emotional, political and anti-religious? A scientists aim is to dispassionately uncover the truth. Why are you so passionate?

And why do you misrepresent the scientific understandings of those who dispute the idea of evolution of humans from apes?

I have a PhD in mathematics from the United Kingdom, and a Bachelor of Laws from Sydney Australia. After reading all the evidence I find it pretty clear that there’s no evidence that human “evolved” from apes.

But everyone is entitled to hold their own views, for their own reasons.

All the best,

David

“But everyone is entitled to hold their own views, for their own reasons.”

that’s true, David, the problem here in the US, is that those who hold religious views are trying to impose them on the rest of us, and our kids.

it goes a lot farther than “evolved from apes”

you should look a bit closer.

I had just spotted a headline for an editorial in the York (down the road from Dover, PA) Dispatch, “National ID Act Misguided” and I thought, Damn! What’s our junior senator up to now? I didn’t see any mention of this at Panda’s Thumb!!…Then I remembered the national driver’s license (IDentification) debate. But the same edition, under Top Stories, carried the AP article on Falcarius. I thought it quite refreshing, during the ongoing Dover ID war, to see an article in the local paper discuss the evolution of such a critter in a straightforward, rational manner without trying to “balance” it with Creationist horsehockey. I wish the readers could be treated to Dave’s discussion as well.

Dave

Falcarius is a sister group with herbivorous oviraptors, and more distantly to the raptors, which include Archaeopteryx, Confuciusornis and other creatures related to early birds. Falcarius is still more distantly related to the ostrich-like dinosaurs (Struthiomimus), and even more so to Tyrannosaurs, Allosaurs, etc.

The Tree of Life is an excellent resource for such questions.

That Tree of Life site is beautiful. But I couldn’t figure out how to answer the question asked by sylvilagus, above, using the site.

Is that where you found the answer, Dave? Help me out.

I think that the appropriate ID response would be:

“It wasn’t evolving, it was in the process of being Intelligently (re)Designed”.

No, no, isn’t it obvious? Falcarius utahensis is “100% BIRD!” Either that, or it’s a hoax. And the picture on the front is very clearly a drawing, not a photograph, and it is scientific fraud to have any article accompanied by such lies. And remember Nebraska man??? They reconstructed an entire “missing link” from a PIG’S TOOTH!

Did you come from a MONKEY???

“And why do you misrepresent the scientific understandings of those who dispute the idea of evolution of humans from apes?”

In an age where China, India and every other industrialized country is rapidly overtaking us in science and technology it’s maddening to see our science curriculum being torn apart to be replaced by religion instruction. The religious right wants to dismantle broad swaths of science to fit their ideas that we’re on a young earth and evolution didn’t occur. In twenty years we’ll be a scientific backwater.

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One David Barnaby Wrote:

If you’re so certain that you’re scientifically correct, why are you so emotional, political and anti-religious? A scientists aim is to dispassionately uncover the truth. Why are you so passionate?

Whom are you addressing here? Did you find the original post “emotional, anti-religious and passionate”? If so, I’m perplexed. Or are you addressing one or more of the commenters?

After reading all the evidence I find it pretty clear that there’s no evidence that human “evolved” from apes.

You seem to have some trouble accepting the evidence, but is it not awfully arrogant of you to tell all the folks who have worked entire lifetimes in this field that “there IS no evidence”?

And is it not awfully presumptious to tell us you’ve read “all” the evidence? That seems like a remarkably bold claim, especially coming from a mathematician, whom I would expect to be more careful with quantitative language.

By the way - I was in Toronto last weekend where I got a chance to see the Feathered Dinosaur exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum. If you’re in the area, don’t miss it.

GWW said

That Tree of Life site is beautiful. But I couldn’t figure out how to answer the question asked by sylvilagus, above, using the site.

Is that where you found the answer, Dave? Help me out.

Actually, that is on-line at PZ Myers’ article on Falcarius, specifically here. OK?

David Barnaby wrote

If you’re so certain that you’re scientifically correct, why are you so emotional, political and anti-religious? …

Ahem. You have fallen for the creationist assertion that one must choose between God and evolution. Not so. The struggle is not between believers and atheists. It is between one particular group of religious believers and everyone else, believers or not. This particular group of believers, the “evolution deniers,” think they understand the world so perfectly that they can tell Everyone what beliefs are correct, and can even tell God what natural methods He is allowed to employ for His designs.

Traditionally, the “evolution deniers” have been known as creationists. But they share the same beliefs, and insist on telling God how to run the Universe, as do the Intelligent Design crowd. -Dave

I have a PhD in mathematics from the United Kingdom, and a Bachelor of Laws from Sydney Australia. After reading all the evidence I find it pretty clear that there’s no evidence that human “evolved” from apes.

I have a PhD in Chemistry, a minor in Biology and have studied evolution for 30 years.

After reading all the mathematical journals I find it pretty clear that Fermat’s Last Theorem remains unproved. All the mathematicians who claim otherwise are either wrong or lying or both.

So there.

I have a PhD in mathematics from the United Kingdom, and a Bachelor of Laws from Sydney Australia. After reading all the evidence I find it pretty clear that there’s no evidence that human “evolved” from apes.

I have an undergrad in physics. I believe the Magna Carta is a fake.

I am a law student, which, like Philip Johnson, makes me an expert in critical thinking and logic. Therefore, HIV does not cause AIDS.

I have a PhD in mathematics from the United Kingdom, and a Bachelor of Laws from Sydney Australia. After reading all the evidence I find it pretty clear that there’s no evidence that human “evolved” from apes.

I have a G.E.D. After reading all the evidence, I find it pretty clear that there is no “Australia”.

I believe the Creationists will herald this as a creature “caught in the act” of transitioning TO Herbivore FROM Carnivore. Cuz, ya know, God didn’t do it just after the apple was munched, it was the next generation of animals were meat-a-saurs. Or something like that.

I have an MSEE from a prestigious university. And I know for a fact that the Apollo moon landings were faked.

Download http://www.pwasoh.com/media/miscmov[…]oontruth.mpg and see for yourself.

David writes: “And why do you misrepresent the scientific understandings of those who dispute the idea of evolution of humans from apes?

I have a PhD in mathematics from the United Kingdom, and a Bachelor of Laws from Sydney Australia.”

Which is not evidence that you have any understanding of science at all.

David Barnaby wrote

I have a PhD in mathematics from the United Kingdom, and a Bachelor of Laws from Sydney Australia. After reading all the evidence I find it pretty clear that there’s no evidence that human “evolved” from apes.

I’m no biologist, but do evolutionary theorists actually maintain that we evolved from apes? I think it’s more correct to say that humans and apes both evolved from an ape-like ancestor. Among creationists, this seems to be a peculiar (and deliberate?) misrepresentation of human evolution.

Indeed. One wonders how a man who claims to be so conversant with the research could make such a basic mistake.

If you’re so certain that you’re scientifically correct, why are you so emotional, political and anti-religious? A scientists aim is to dispassionately uncover the truth. Why are you so passionate?

There’s nothing in science that says you must be dispassionate. My wife is a scientist. She gets quite passionate about her science. This is a common misconception by people who are ignorant about science and are too busy trying to push their sterotypes on others.

As for being political? You and your kind have done your best to put them in the back of the bus. Now you want to kick them off the bus. All while pretending YOU’RE the victim.

And why do you misrepresent the scientific understandings of those who dispute the idea of evolution of humans from apes?

My reading over the years has shown me that the Creationist side continously distorts to the point it’s fair to say they lie. To make it even funnier is not only do they lie, but they go right on out there and they do what most any grouping of disparate-faith religious associations do and engage in doctrinal heresy conflicts and internal fighting. Evolutionists don’t need to disprove Creationist theories. The Creationists do that for them all the time.

The science side does its best to present the information and educate. But, as we’ve all seen, on occassion, lapse into normal irritation of dealing with zelots and ID dunderheads that believe they know enough to make an informed decision or are clever enough to not get suckered in by a fallacious argument. When clearly they’re not.

Yet, day after day, they’re attacked as if they’re “morally deficient,” by these “good Christians.” Not quite as bad as the “good Christians” with their “God hates fags” signs, but the message of moral turpitude is there every day.

I have a PhD in mathematics from the United Kingdom, and a Bachelor of Laws from Sydney Australia. After reading all the evidence I find it pretty clear that there’s no evidence that human “evolved” from apes.

Ha ha ha ha ha… You have no more qualifications to judge the biology being discussed than your average Art History major who spent most of his time getting drunk at frat parties. You see why scientist get annoyed? You see why they become so “passionate?”

Moses wrote in comment 28484

Not quite as bad as the “good Christians” with their “God hates fags” signs, but the message of moral turpitude is there every day.

We just had the “God Hate Fags” group sleaze their way through New Mexico a couple of weeks ago. No, I’ll not grace this page with a link to their site. If you simply must soak up some Hate, you’ll have to find them on your own. But, Folks, if these hatemongers come to your town, here’s one way to handle them, with Peace, Love and Understanding.

Yes, it’s the “Big Ass Angel Wings” protest.

Check it out!

Cheers, Dave

To its credit, the Mormon Church has not fallen for the blandishments of creationism and evolution denial, due in large part, I think, to the outstanding fossil localities and blatantly obvious stratigraphy of its home state.

The church-owned Deseret News covered the story without one bit of doubt about the validity of evolution and a great deal of “home town pride” over Utah’s place in the world of paleontology.

http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,12[…]1494,00.html

.… a PhD in mathematics … and a Bachelor of Laws .…. there’s no evidence that human “evolved” from apes.

Trolling, and quite well done too.

I make a living correcting lawyers’ writing, and this is perfect, elegant, misdirection.

You might go on to say that there’s no evidence that humans evolved from monkeys, either.

No evidence that monkeys evolved from chimps, that chimps evolved from apes, or any other apples-and-oranges sort of comparison.

Apples didn’t evolve from oranges.

What we’re ignoring here is the evidence that both evolved – from something earlier.

Good one! This is the sort of clever wording that makes lawyers what they are today – and from which they can evolve into being politicians.

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This page contains a single entry by Dave Thomas published on May 5, 2005 10:46 AM.

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