Archaeopteryx

Archaeopteryx, sometimes referred to by its German name Urvogel (“original bird” or “first bird”), is a genus of bird-like dinosaurs that is transitional between non-avian feathered dinosaurs and modern birds. The name derives from the ancient Greek ἀρχαῖος (archaīos) meaning “ancient”, and πτέρυξ (ptéryx), meaning “feather” or “wing”. Between the late nineteenth century and the early twenty-first century, Archaeopteryx had been generally accepted by palaeontologists and popular reference books as the oldest known bird (member of the group Avialae). Older potential avialans have since been identified, including Anchiornis, Xiaotingia, and Aurornis.

Archaeopteryx lived in the Late Jurassic around 150 million years ago, in what is now southern Germany during a time when Europe was an archipelago of islands in a shallow warm tropical sea, much closer to the equator than it is now. Similar in size to a Eurasian magpie, with the largest individuals possibly attaining the size of a raven, the largest species of Archaeopteryx could grow to about 0.5 m (1 ft 8 in) in length. Despite their small size, broad wings, and inferred ability to fly or glide, Archaeopteryx had more in common with other small Mesozoic dinosaurs than with modern birds. In particular, they shared the following features with the dromaeosaurids and troodontids: jaws with sharp teeth, three fingers with claws, a long bony tail, hyperextensible second toes (“killing claw”), feathers (which also suggest warm-bloodedness), and various features of the skeleton.

In life, Archaeopteryx was a toothy predator about the size of a modern crow. He surveyed the landscape of what is now Germany about 150 million years ago, close to the same time that Brachiosaurus and Stegosaurus were stomping around the American West. It’s unclear how good he was at flying, as the bones of his chest were not well developed for flight muscles. He shared the skies with a huge array of pterosaurs, the flying reptiles like Pterodactylus.

These features make Archaeopteryx a clear candidate for a transitional fossil between non-avian dinosaurs and birds. Thus, Archaeopteryx plays an important role, not only in the study of the origin of birds, but in the study of dinosaurs. It was named from a single feather in 1861. That same year, the first complete specimen of Archaeopteryx was announced. Over the years, ten more fossils of Archaeopteryx have surfaced. Despite variation among these fossils, most experts regard all the remains that have been discovered as belonging to a single species, although this is still debated.

Most of these eleven fossils include impressions of feathers. Because these feathers are of an advanced form (flight feathers), these fossils are evidence that the evolution of feathers began before the Late Jurassic. The type specimen of Archaeopteryx was discovered just two years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Archaeopteryx seemed to confirm Darwin’s theories and has since become a key piece of evidence for the origin of birds, the transitional fossils debate, and confirmation of evolution.

Description

Most of the specimens of Archaeopteryx that have been discovered come from the Solnhofen limestone in Bavaria, southern Germany, which is a lagerstätte, a rare and remarkable geological formation known for its superbly detailed fossils laid down during the early Tithonian stage of the Jurassic period, approximately 150.8–148.5 million years ago.

Artist’s restoration illustrating one interpretation of Carney’s study by Nobu Tamura

Archaeopteryx was roughly the size of a raven, with broad wings that were rounded at the ends and a long tail compared to its body length. It could reach up to 500 millimetres (20 in) in body length, with an estimated mass of 0.8 to 1 kilogram (1.8 to 2.2 lb). Archaeopteryx feathers, although less documented than its other features, were very similar in structure to modern-day bird feathers. Despite the presence of numerous avian features, Archaeopteryx had many non-avian theropod dinosaur characteristics. Unlike modern birds, Archaeopteryx had small teeth, as well as a long bony tail, features which Archaeopteryx shared with other dinosaurs of the time.

Skeletal restorations of 8 specimens by Jaime A. Headden

Because it displays features common to both birds and non-avian dinosaurs, Archaeopteryx has often been considered a link between them. In the 1970s, John Ostrom, following Thomas Henry Huxley’s lead in 1868, argued that birds evolved within theropod dinosaurs and Archaeopteryx was a critical piece of evidence for this argument; it had several avian features, such as a wishbone, flight feathers, wings, and a partially reversed first toe along with dinosaur and theropod features. For instance, it has a long ascending process of the ankle bone, interdental plates, an obturator process of the ischium, and long chevrons in the tail. In particular, Ostrom found that Archaeopteryx was remarkably similar to the theropod family Dromaeosauridae.

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