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Archaeopteryx

Archaeopteryx

Archaeopteryx is an animal from the Upper Jurassic period that was very similar to the other feathered dinosaurs of the Mesozoic era. It was a small bipedal dino-bird that had sharp teeth and fed on insects and small lizards. It is the most famous transitional form in the history of fossils between dinosaurs and birds and is of great interest to several generations of paleontologists who continue to study its many well preserved fossil specimens in order to deduce its main characteristics such as its appearance, lifestyle and metabolism.

Halfway between a bird and a dinosaur

Over the years, Archaeopteryx has acquired the reputation of being the first true bird despite having a variety of traits that are exclusive to reptiles. Like the theropod dinosaurs of the time, Archaeopteryx had a long bony tail; a feature not found in prehistoric birds nor in modern birds. In addition, this creature's teeth were sharp and much like those of other small carnivorous dinosaurs. Recent studies have also shown that Archaeopteryx's feathers and wings (which had 3 claws protruding from the middle) probably did not allow it to actively flap its wings in order to fly away; instead, it had to live an arboreal lifestyle and hover over short distances to move from tree to tree or even branch to branch, occasionally flapping to propel himself or stay on course. This last characteristic, however, does not really make any difference in the classification of this dino-bird because many modern birds are unable to fly: ostriches, penguins and chickens are all bound to the ground.

Bird features

Archaeopteryx reconstruction
Archaeopteryx - Reconstruction at London's Museum of Natural History

Similarly, Archaeopteryx had attributes that gave it the appearance of a bird. For example, his body was completely covered with feathers whose structure was very similar (if not identical) to that of modern birds. The adult individuals of this dino-bird were about the same size as a well-fed pigeon – 1 or 2 pounds at most – much smaller than the average size of carnivorous dinosaurs. Like contemporary birds but possibly the result of convergent evolution, Archaeopteryx's head and beak were long, narrow and tapered. Unlike birds, however, newborn Archaeopteryx took 3 years to reach maturity; this timelapse represents an eternity in the avian kingdom. This implies that this animal did not possess a classic warm-blooded metabolism which is all the more curious since carnivorous dinosaurs certainly were and modern birds too.

Dino-bird

For all these reasons, it is just as accurate to classify Archaeopteryx as a dinosaur that it is to sort it with birds. This is a very picky debate and the vast majority of people simply prefer to say that he was a dino-bird, a transitional form between the two.

The first discoveries of Archaeopteryx

Fossilized feather of Archaeopteryx
Fossilized feather found in 1861

The true story of Archaeopteryx begins in 1861 when the German paleontologist Christian Erick Hermann von Meyer discovers in the limestone deposits of Solnhofen – a German town in the southern region of Bavaria – a unique fossilized feather. Shortly after von Meyer's initial discovery, much more complete fossils began to emerge from those Late Jurassic formations.

A new species

Thus, in 1861, an anonymous fossil hunter dug up an almost 100% complete specimen of Archaeopteryx. He then exchanged it for medical treatment with a local doctor who later sold the bones to the Museum of Natural History in London for the tidy sum of 700 pounds (a staggering amount of money in the middle of the 19th century). Two years later, the most famous naturalist of the time, Richard Owen, named the new dinosaur species Archaeopteryx lithographica and associated von Meyer's feather with this genre.

The third specimen suffered a similar fate: a German farmer found bones in the mid-1870s and sold them to an innkeeper so he could buy a cow. The fossil then changed owners several times before being bought by a German museum for 20,000 gold marks, a sum even more colossal than what the doctor initially earned.

Charles Darwin and the theory of natural selection

Charles Darwin
Darth Vader Charles Darwin

It is very interesting to note that the events that marked the beginning of the story of this dino-bird occurred very shortly after the father of the theory of evolution, Charles Darwin, published in 1859 in his manuscript "The Origin of Species" his theory of natural selection. The discovery of a transitional animal between dinosaurs and birds has greatly accelerated the acceptance of his theory. Nowadays, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is generally considered valid except by some creationist and fundamentalist fanatics who continue to reject the idea of "transitional forms". To quote the author of The Origin of Species himself:

“It is known, on behalf of Professor Owen's authority, that a bird lived during the formation of Upper Greensand deposits; and that more recently, a strange bird, Archaeopteryx, with a long lizard tail, carrying a pair of feather on each seam and with wings adorned with two free claws, was discovered in the oolithic layers of Solnhofen. No other recent discovery shows so clearly how little is known about the ancient inhabitants of the Earth.”

Origin of species

A very old specimen

Another well-known fact is that the first real remains of Archaeopteryx can be traced as far back as 1855, but the fragmentary specimen was so incomplete that it was not identifiable. Von Meyer classified it as a Pterodactylus (one of the first pterosaurs, or flying reptiles, to be identified) in 1877. With more current knowledge, the American paleontologist John Ostrom noticed in 1970 that it was actually that of an Archaeopteryx.

Recent fossil discoveries

Thermopolis specimen - Fossil of Archaeopteryx
Thermopolis specimen

During the 20th century, many other exquisitely preserved fossils belonging to Archaeopteryx were dug up and classified according to modern knowledge of life during the Jurassic era.

Eichstatt and Solnhofen specimen

The Eichstatt specimen was discovered in 1951 and could be a new species of Archaeopteryx or belong to a new genus, Jurapteryx. There is also the Solnhofen specimen discovered in the early 1970s and which could also be a new genus, the Wellnhoferia.

Thermopolis specimen

The most notable fossil is, however, the specimen of Thermopolis. Discovered in 2005, this is the most complete skeleton of Archaeopteryx found to date and is a key piece of evidence in the ongoing debate about whether Archaeopteryx actually was the first bird or rather closer to the dinosaurs on the spectrum of evolution.

Maxberg specimen

The last fossil is Maxberg's specimen whose mysterious fate sheds light on the sordid link between trade and fossil hunting. Discovered in 1956 in Germany and acquired by a private collector named Eduard Opitsch, the specimen was then stolen from the property of Opitsch after his death never to be seen again.

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