15-0153 Great Transitions: The Origin of Birds
Produced by Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Category as a finalist: Educational/Institutional
In the long history of life on earth, few transitions capture the imagination more than animals gaining the ability to fly. University of Texas paleontologist, and bird enthusiast, Julia Clarke hosts this journey to discover what may seem the unlikely origin of birds. The journey starts just two years after Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species, when paleontologist Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer obtains a single perfectly fossilized feather from a limestone deposit in southern Germany, and then in short order, a nearly complete fossil skeleton of a feathered animal named Archaeopteryx, is found in the same limestone formation. Archaeopteryx was just the kind of transitional organism that Darwin had predicted. It had feathered wings, a wishbone, and other features in common with living birds, but also teeth, a long bony tail, and claws, like living reptiles. But reptiles are a large and diverse group. So what kind of reptile became the question. Today many school children know that the stunning answer is dinosaurs, but few people know the whole fascinating story of discovery and stunning new findings in China of a myriad fossils of feathered dinosaurs. In the last 40 years, scientists have uncovered many shared features between birds and two-legged carnivorous dinosaurs called theropods—a group that included T. rex and Velocirapotor. The film reveals how scientists pieced together the evidence that birds are a lineage of theropod dinosaurs that survived the mass extinction caused by a massive asteroid smashing into the Earth about 66 million years ago. An important objective of the film is to dispel misconceptions that evolution proceeds in a predictable and linear patter, or that traits somehow evolve on-demand for particular purposes. HHMI collaborated with Dan Levitt, of Veriscope Productions, to craft a dynamic narrative, including a shoot at a fossil site with famed dinosaur hunter Jack Horner.