Paleontologists digging in western Texas have unearthed the fossil bones of what they believe to be the world's oldest known birds--225 million years old, judging by accepted dating techniques. This means that these ancient animals predate by 75 million years the famous Archaeopteryx, hitherto the earliest birdlike creature discovered. Sankar Chatterjee of Texas Tech University, who led a team sponsored by the National Geographic Society, has named his find Protoavis, combining the Greek proto, meaning first in time, and the Latin avis, for bird. For that alone we are grateful, because Protoavis is a lot easier to spell than Archaeopteryx.
The Protoavis find apparently strengthens the evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs, presumably at some point before those reptiles succeeded in making themselves extinct. Though older than Archaeopteryx, Protoavis was more birdlike, suggesting that Archaeopteryx was on something of an evolutionary dead end while the crow-sized Protoavis may have been in the mainstream--going with the flow, so to speak. Protoavis had claws, powerful hind legs, a tail and a pelvis resembling those of dinosaurs, as well as hollow bones and the kind of breastbone needed to support the muscles necessary for flying.
The evolutionary chain points to the movement of life from the oceans to the land and finally to the air. No doubt this was necessary progress. When Tyrannosaurus Rex was stomping around, not being very careful about where he put his big feet, it was a good idea to get out of the way fast. And so flying was born, and soon animals that were able to take to the air discovered that they acquired a perspective unknown to creatures that swam in the sea or wallowed in the swamp or plodded the earth. Archaeopteryx had wings and feathers, but apparently was more reptile than bird. Protoavis, Dr. Chatterjee believes, was unmistakably bird. Although it died out long ago, it was surely fortunate in its time.