One key fact overturns a bizarre interpretation steadily gaining steam

Figure 1. Jim Clark putting his best interpretive spin on the weird vestigial hand of Limusaurus. Click to play.

Figure 1. Jim Clark putting his best interpretive spin on the weird vestigial hand of Limusaurus. Click to play.

I ran across this YouTube video featuring Dr. Jim Clark talking about his then new ceratosaur dinosaur, Limusaurus, which we looked at earlier here. Clark addresses the importance of the hand of Limusaurus, which he claims with admirable confidence that this was a ‘transitional’ theropod that demonstrates how digit 1 was lost, digit 2 took on the appearance of digit 1, digit 3 took on the appearance of digit 2 and so on. That’s called a ‘phase shift’ as one digit takes on the identify of the one next to it and it is gaining wide acceptance, despite its bizarre premise.

That same hypothesis
is echoed here online at the Varagas Lab and it is becoming the standard paradigm on theropod hands. As an example, the recent paper on Haplocheirus labeled the three manual digits 2, 3 and 4.

This all started
with a report on chicken embryo hands by Thulborn and Hamely (1984), Thulburn (1993) and Burke and Feduccia (1997). Before then everyone labeled the three digits of theropod hands, 1, 2 and 3, which was eminently  logical. Shortly after the Burke and Feduccia study workers struggled against the new hypothesis, but recently (following the publication of Limusaurus) have rallied to support this hypothesis in papers appearing online here and here and here.

Let’s remind ourselves
Alan Feduccia has a vested interest in separating birds from dinosaurs.

This isn’t the first time Occam’s razor was ignored.
We’ve already seen several very odd paradigms arise in paleontology. A forelimb launch for giant pterosaurs is one such boondoggle. The extra bone in the wing of Yi qi is another. The nesting of Vancleavea and pterosaurs with archosauriformes are yet other examples. There are dozens of others. The theropod finger ‘phase shift’ is one more false paradigm that keeps spreading and needs to be stopped.

As discussed earlier, chicken embryos develop an extra medial finger as embryos. This finger bud ultimately disappears by the time of hatching. It is a relic from our basal tetrapod ancestry, from a time when our ancestors had six or more fingers. This has nothing to do with the normal count of five fingers in all post-Devonian tetrapods. We all develop through an embryonic stage when our hands are webbed mittens. In only one adult animal that we know of, Limusaurus, did this extra medial finger appear in an adult — and only because the hand of Limusaurus is a tiny vestige that stopped developing normally. Essentially it’s an embryo hand that retained the medial bud.

This one key fact
has been overlooked by other workers who have flocked to the ‘phase shift’ hypothesis. Which is the simpler explanation: 1) all the fingers suddenly appear like their neighbor finger, changing phalanx counts, or 2) an embryonic bud appears then disappears before hatching.

There is always a simple explanation
for every seemingly magical event or paleontological problem. The six-fingered ancestry of chickens is a key fact overlooked by modern theropod paleontologists who apparently are content to just count the fingers. Sometimes it’s not what you see that counts, but what experience you bring to what you see that trumps logic-busting arguments.

In theropods, what you see is what you get.
Fingers 1, 2 and 3 are indeed fingers 1, 2 and 3. In embryos you may see another medial digit, but it’s not homologous with the medial digit in any other tetrapod, except Limusaurus, as noted above. There is no phase shift of theropod fingers.

Burke AC and Feduccia A 1997. Developmental patterns and the identification of homologies in the avian hand. Science 278: 666–668.
Thulborn RA and Hamley TL 1984. ON the hand of Archaeopteryx. Nature 311:218.
Thulborn RA 1993. A tale of three fingers: Ichnological evidence revealing the homologies of manual digits in theropod dinosaurs. New Mexico Museum of of Natural History and Science Bulletion 3:461-463.


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