A dinosaur for dinner?

December 19, 2003

As the nation prepares to stuff itself with monster portions of turkey next week, palaeontologists will set about proving an intriguing proposition - that the turkey is really a dinosaur.

Members of the Palaeontological Association will be meeting at Leicester University to consider how fossil records can be used to trace the turkey's dinosaur ancestors.

Although the link between birds and dinosaurs has been known for some time, scientists have only recently unearthed concrete evidence of this by tracing distinctive characteristics of the different animal groups through "family trees" of fossils.

Mark Purnell, research fellow and geology lecturer at Leicester, said the approach had helped to dispel the idea that there must be living animals that are "missing links".

He said: "If we try to do the simple classification job of putting things into place based on the distinctive characteristics they possess, such as a wishbone, we find that many fossils are neither one thing or another, but lie on branches between living groups.

"Crocodiles and turkeys provide a great example of this because the large group of animals that lies between them is well known to us as dinosaurs.

"There is no missing link as such, but by looking at the family tree of crocodiles, dinosaurs and birds, we can see how something that started out as neither bird nor crocodile, over millions of years, gained the features that are now unique to those living groups."

Dr Purnell said that when the fossil "family trees" relating to the turkey were closely examined, there was one inescapable conclusion. "There is no doubt about it - your Christmas turkey is a dinosaur," he said.

Members of the association will also be considering the implications of fossil-tracing for other animal groups.

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