What is Alcmonavis poeschli?

Rauhut, Tischlinger and Foth 2019 describe
a disarticulated right forelimb/wing of a ‘non-archaeopterygid avialan theropod’, they named Alcmonavis poeschli specimen SNSB-BSPG 2017 I 133. It is the 13th Solnhofen bird.

The authors report,
“it is a more derived avialan than Archaeopteryx,” which brings up a problem.

Currently there are more than a dozen Solnhofen birds
or pre-birds in the large reptile tree (LRT, 1471 taxa). Many workers, including Rauhut, Tischlinger and Foth, throw them into a taxonomic wastebasket of ‘Archaeopteryx.’ Other authors have shown that some are not congeneric with others and these were noted by Rauhut, et al.

By contrast,
the LRT separates all of Solnhofen birds specifically, and many generically, recovering several at the bases of various Early Cretaceous bird clades. The LRT, employing relatively few forelimb traits and none specific to theropods/birds, nests Alcmonavis with the BSP 1999 I50 specimen identified as Archaeopteryx bavarica (the Munich specimen, Fig. 1), nesting at the base of the Jeholornis clade alongside the #12 specimen (Fig. 1), which nests at the base of the sister clade, the Scansoriopterygidae. Evidently there were enough traits in the new specimen forelimb to do this. I wasn’t sure at first.

Figure 1. Alcmonavis to scale with its sister in the LRT, the Munich specimen.

Figure 1. Alcmonavis to scale with its sister in the LRT, the Munich specimen. The authors did not attempt a reconstruction.

Alcmonavis is twice the size of the Munich specimen (Fig. 1). The authors write, “Here we report on a new paravian specimen from the Lower Tithonian Mörnsheim Formation, representing the second theropod specimen from this unit, which overlies the Altmühltal Formation. The new specimen represents the largest avialan theropod yet recorded from the Jurassic and provides further evidence on the forelimb anatomy and the origin of flapping flight in basal avialans.”

The authors note that Alcmonavis
was found in the formation immediately above the one that yielded the majority of Solnhofen birds, including the Munich specimen.

Regarding the numbers and names, the authors write, 
“We propose to retain the original numbering of specimens, even if one accepts the different generic assignments, in order to avoid confusion between the recent and older literature. Given the gradual assembly of the avialan body plan and the general similarity of the basalmost members of this clade, it might be justified to simply talk about ’urvogel specimens’ instead of using the generic name Archaeopteryx, to thus accommodate the taxonomic uncertainty. Accordingly, the specimen described here should be regarded as the 13th urvogel specimen from the Solnhofen Archipelago.” 

This is confirmation of a practice already in place.
In the LRT and here at ‘Heresies’, all specimens from the Solnhofen limestones have been called, ‘Solnhofen birds’ for several years now. This leaves room for some specimen to be renamed when more of them are added to phylogenetic analyses, as documented in the LRT. The term ‘urvogel’ goes back to the false assumption that one ‘ur’ was present, rather than the large radiation already documented in the LRT.

The authors lament many layers of difficulty
in comparing the forelimb of Alcmonavis to those of other Solnhofen birds based on size and exposure, various proportions and robust qualities. As mentioned earlier, the LRT had no such problems using DGS methods to extract comparative data. Summarizing, the authors state, “despite the overall similarity and very similar proportions, the new specimen shows numerous small differences from Archaeopteryx, precluding a referral to this taxon. It is furthermore clear that SNSB-BSPG 2017 I 133 also cannot be referred to Ostromia or to any other known theropod taxon.”

“The phylogenetic analysis resulted in more than 99,999 trees with a length of 2690 steps. The strict consensus is rather well resolved and includes monophyletic Maniraptora, Paraves and Avialae with equivalent taxonomic contents to other recent analyses.”

Unfortunately the authors include only one taxon for Archaeopteryx.
They nest Alcomonavis between Archaeopteryx and higher birds, oblivious to the effects of taxon exclusion on their tree topology. Little else needs to be said. Deleting/ omitting/ ignoring key taxa is inappropriate at this stage of our understanding of Solnhofen birds.

Here is yet another case
where more taxa would have helped the original authors, not more characters. Taxon exclusion continues to be the number one problem in paleontology, not just with Jurassic birds.

Contra the title of Rauhut et al. 2019,
the new taxon is indeed an archaeopterygid, despite its size.

Rauhut OWM, Tischlinger H and Foth C 2019. A non-archaeopterygid avialan theropod from the Late Jurassic of southern Germany. elifesciences.org 2019;8:e43789. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.43789

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