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Archaeopteryx

AH - kee - OP - tuh - rix

Therapoda/Aves
Copyright 2007

Field Notes

Name Means: "Ancient feather"
Length: 2 feet (60 cm)
Diet: Carnivore (Meat-Eater)
Time: Late Jurassic - 150 MYA
Location: Bavaria, Germany

Possibly the most important fossil ever found, Archaeopteryx combines two rare features. First, five of the seven known specimens are preserved with impressions of the delicate feathers that it had in life. This is remarkable because generally feathers would not be strong enough to withstand the rigors of fossilization. Second, because Archaeopteryx displays an unambiguous mix of characters from two linked groups of animals-the birds and the dinosaurs-it is a classic and rare example of an organism on an evolutionary pathway between the two.

Archaeopteryx was a small birdlike dinosaur, about the size of a present-day crow. Its skeleton was very similar to that of some theropod dinosaurs-it had a four-toed foot with the first toe reversed to the other three; a three-fingered hand; a long, straight, bony tail; teeth; curved claws on the hands and feet; and a large crest on the upper arm bone.

The most strikingly birdlike feature of Archaeopteryx is the feathers. Not only did this dinosaur clearly have feathers, but these were arranged in exactly the same pattern as feathers on the wings of modern birds. Furthermore, they were shaped just like the flight feathers of birds that are capable of powered flight. From this we can probably assume that Archaeopteryx was capable of powered flight, but it may have been restricted to short bursts from tree to tree. The areas for attaching the muscles that modern birds need for flight are not very well developed in Archaeopteryx. It may well have used both flapping and gliding to move through the air. It probably fed on insects that it found in trees or caught in flight.

Archaeopteryx played a pivotal role in the acceptance of evolution as a mainstream scientific theory. When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, a perceived weakness in his argument was the lack of intermediate animals in the fossil record. If animals and plants had been changing from one form to another through time, as evolution suggests, then at least there should be some fossils of organisms intermediate in structure between different groups.

The first skeleton of Archaeopteryx was found just two years after the publication of Darwin's theory and, as predicted, it displayed a mix of bird and dinosaur features. Clearly, evolutionists argued, it was an intermediate form between the two groups.

Since its initial discovery there has been some debate about what kind of reptiles Archaeopteryx is most closely related to. We now recognize that its closest relatives are some theropod dinosaurs, such as the dromaeosaurs and the oviraptors. In fact, the skeleton of Archaeopteryx is so theropod-like that one specimen found without feathers was for many years mistakenly identified as the small theropod Compsognathus.

As well as the seven complete or partial Archaeopteryx skeletons, some isolated feathers have also been found. The superb state of preservation of the delicate, hollow bones and fine feathers was possible only because the fossils occured in a very fine-grained limestone called lithographic limestone. This was quarried in Bavaria in order to make lithographic printing plates. It was during these quarrying procedures that the specimens of Archaeopteryx, as well as thousands of other important fossils, were recovered.

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