The following critiques express the opinions of the individual evaluators regarding the strengths, weaknesses, and value of the books they review. As such, the appraisals are subjective assessments and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or any official policy of the American Ornithologists' Union.
The Origin and Evolution of Birds, 2nd Edition.—Alan Feduccia. 1999. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. x + 466 pp., numerous text figures. ISBN 0-300-07861-1. Paper, $29.95—This is the second and paperback edition of Alan Feduccia's outstanding coverage of the origin and evolution of birds (see Auk 114:531–534 for my review of the original 1997 edition). This edition contains some definite improvements, including being printed on better paper with a substantial increase in the quality of the illustrations and a lower cost that places this volume within reach of most ornithologists. Aside from a new final chapter entitled ”T. rex was no Four-Ton Roadrunner and Other Revelations,” and the additional citations that are integrated in the references, the material in this edition is the same as the first edition.
The Origin and Evolution of Birds is still by far the best treatment of the subject that is currently available. In the new final chapter, Feduccia discusses clearly and comprehensively the ongoing controversy surrounding avian and some dinosaur Mesozoic fossils, the occurrence of feathers in nonavian groups, and the origin of birds either from dinosaurs or from some other group within the archosaurian reptiles. Again, his treatment of this controversy is reasonable, especially within the constraints of the currently available information about these fossils. The problems in dealing with this material are enormous, and I have great admiration for Feduccia's ability and patience to delve through the burgeoning literature on these subjects, and especially for his skill in separating fact from fiction.
An example of the problems in this latter area is the recent article by C. P. Sloan, “Feathers for T. rex,” that appeared in the November 1999 issue of National Geographic. The article featured a new fossil discovery from the Cretaceous of China named Archaeoraptor. This fossil was hailed as a feathered dinosaur and as further proof that many dinosaurs possessed feathers and that birds evolved from dinosaurs. Unfortunately, however, when this specimen was examined more closely by Chinese paleontologists, it was found to be a composite fossil consisting of the body of a bird and the tail of a dromaeosaurid dinosaur; it was put together by a clever Chinese farmer on whose land the fossils were found and who realized that a complete fossil was more valuable than its parts. The farmer had completely fooled those scientists who saw just what they wanted to see: a feathered dinosaur. This case is rather typical of the confusion being generated in both the scientific and lay journals to publish in haste on newly discovered fossils.
Equally important to consider is that most of the avian and other Mesozoic fossils pertinent to understanding the origin and early evolution of birds have not been sufficiently prepared, described, and analyzed. We have been most fortunate in the large number of spectacular new avian fossils discovered over the past two decades, but most of these specimens are known only by their names and the barest of descriptions. The best-known early avian fossil is still Archaeopteryx, which many avian paleontologists now believe to be a member of the Sauriurae and closely related to the Enantiornithes—the opposite birds—and not part of the other large group of birds—the Ornithurae—which gave rise to modern birds. Thus, Archaeopteryx, even though it is the best-known early avian taxon, appears to be off the main lineage leading to the large surviving radiation of birds and thus would be of less importance to our understanding of the evolution of birds. What is now needed is much preparatory work and careful description of the available fossil specimens, and then analysis and comparison of the characteristics of these taxa.
The Origin and Evolution of Birds is the outstanding treatment of what is now known about this subject, but much more remains to be learned. Hopefully, the necessary preparation and description of these Mesozoic fossils will be done without further delay so that we can look forward, perhaps in a decade, to a new edition of this book that will provide a much better account of avian evolutionary history. Until then, I can recommend the current edition of Feduccia's book without hesitation to all ornithologists and others interested in the origin and evolutionary history of birds.