Archaeopteryx was a Bird-Like Theropod Dinosaur
Archaeopteryx lived around 150 million years ago during the Jurassic era, in what is now southern Germany. It lived before the continental shift and, at the time, Europe was a group of tropical islands much closer to the equator. Archaeopteryx (pronounced AR-kee-OP-ter-iks) comes from the Ancient Greek: archaios, meaning “ancient”, and pteryx, meaning “feather”. Due to the discovery of Archaeopteryx in what is now Germany, it’s German name Urvogel, or “original bird”, is also often used in reference. However, recent research suggests that, although it might be related to the origin of birds, it is in fact a non-avian dinosaur. We do know that it shares a lot of the features of birds, similar to other theropod dinosaurs like it. But it was still more of a dinosaur than a bird.
|Prehistoric Era||Late Jurassic|
|Classification||Carnivore Possibly Omnivore
|Weight||300 – 500 grams (11 – 8 ounces)|
|Length||.3 meters (1 foot)|
|Height||0.3 meters (1 foot)
|Maximum Speed||4.47 MPH|
What Did Archaeopteryx Look Like?
Archaeopteryx had characteristics of both birds and dinosaurs
Archaeopteryx was small, with broad, feathered wings like modern birds. However, unlike living birds, Archaeopteryx had teeth, a flat breastbone, a long and bony tail, and three claws on its wing for hunting or climbing. It had many theropod dinosaur features. Because of the characteristics Archaeopteryx shared with both birds and theropod dinosaurs, scientist John Ostrom argued in the 1970s that Archaeopteryx was a crucial piece of evidence that birds evolved within theropod dinosaurs, in particular the theropod family of Dromaeosauridae.
Physical Attributes of Archaeopteryx
Archaeopteryx has been compared in size to some modern birds like a raven and European magpie. It could reach up to about 20 inches (500 mm) in the length of its body and it’s weight has been estimated from 1.8 to 2.2 lb (.8 to 1 kg). In 2011 the first study of its kind was carried out to assess the coloration of this feathered dinosaur. The research team detected the structure of melanosomes in the specimen that was described in 1861 from a single feather. Melanosomes contain melanin, which is a light absorbing pigment commonly found in animals. When compared to 87 living bird species, the structure was found to very probably be black in color. That means Archaeopteryx had at least some black on its feathers, which the primary researcher pointed out would have strengthened them for flight, given the strengthening properties of black melanosomes (which is why many birds have some black coloration).
What Did Archaeopteryx Eat?
Archaeopteryx was a small carnivore
Archaeopteryx was a meat eater, indicated by its full teeth and claws, but it was a small one. Therefore, it probably fed on small prey. Fossil evidence indicates that a large number of insects and small lizards lived in the same region, at the same point in history. Both species would have appealed to Archaeopteryx. We may also know what time of day Archaeopteryx liked to hunt. A study that was published in 2010 indicated that Archaeopteryx might have been nocturnal, or an animal that hunts at night. Lars Schmitz from the University of California studied 77 bird species and discovered that the shapes of eye sockets in birds directly correlate to what time of day or night they feed. Archaeopteryx was found to have similar shaped eye sockets to nocturnal bird species.
Where Did Archaeopteryx Live?
Although discovered and known to live in what is now Bavaria, Archaeopteryx did not live in a setting that would be familiar to modern-day Germans. The fossil evidence indicate that the region was starkly different to what it is now. The latitude was closer to the equator, although drier than Florida as shown by evidence of semi-arid conditions. Archaeopteryx was thought to be a tree climber, due to its claws, but large trees were mostly absent from where it lived according to the fossil record. There were primarily low shrubs, which Archaeopteryx still may have called home.
How Did Archaeopteryx Move?
Did Archaeopteryx fly?
The flight feathers of Archaeopteryx were similar to the wings of birds today with their asymmetry and and broad tail feathers. Paleontologists interpret this to mean that the wings and tail were used to generate lift for flight. However, it’s unknown whether it could glide or flap its wings to fly. The fact that the breastbone is not shaped like breastbones seen in birds capable of flight indicates that it wasn’t a particularly strong flier, but the flight muscles could have attached elsewhere on its body. The wings were relatively large for its body which scientists say would create a low stall speed and reduced turning radius. Drag would increase from the short, rounded shape of the wings, but the dinosaur’s ability to fly through trees and bush would be improved.
Archaeopteryx had a good brain for flight
A study of the braincase of Archaeopteryx in 2004 resulted in scientists concluding that its brain was much larger than the brains of most dinosaurs. They used a CT scan to reconstruct the brain anatomy and the reconstruction showed highly developed areas for vision, hearing, and muscle coordination in the brain of the Archaeopteryx. The structure of the inner ear was also shown to more closely resemble modern birds than non-avian reptiles. The developed areas in the reconstructed brain anatomy are all important for flight which provides sound evidence for the Archaeopteryx being a flying dinosaur.
History and Discovery of Archaeopteryx
The first Archaeopteryx specimens
All of the specimens of Archaeopteryx that have been found came from the limestone deposits near Solnhofen in Germany. The first discovery was one fossilized feather, described by Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer in 1861. It is commonly attributed to the Archaeopteryx as it’s the only proto-bird species we know of in the region. The first skeleton was discovered in Germany in 1861 and is known as the London Specimen. It is thought to have been given to a local doctor Karl Haberlein in exchange for medical services. He sold it for £700 to London’s Natural History Museum where it remains today. It was described by Richard Owen as Archaeopteryx macrura in 1863, who allowed the species of the feather to remain unidentified.
A more complete Archaeopteryx specimen
Interestingly, the next Archaeopteryx skeleton to be found was also sold. Farmer Jakob Niemeyer discovered it in 1874 or 1875 and sold the fossil to an inn-keeper. Then he used the money to buy a cow. It was bought and sold several more times until it was bought for 20,000 Goldmark by the Humboldt Museum fur Naturkunde, where it is on display today. Called The Berlin Specimen, It has the distinction of being the most complete skeleton, including the head, which the previous specimen lacked. It was described in 1884 by Wilhelm Dames and named by him as a new species in 1897.
The Thermopolis Specimen
A well preserved Archaeopteryx specimen was discovered in Bavaria described in 2005. It became known as the Thermopolis Specimen after being donated to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyoming. Of any specimen, it has the best preserved head and feet, although most of the neck and the lower jaw were not intact. An article in a 2005 Science journal article described it as “A well-preserved Archaeopteryx specimen with theropod features”, referring to the specimen having no reversed toe, which is a universal bird characteristic. This meant the Archaeopteryx was incapable of perching on branches and it probably had a terrestrial lifestyle. Paleontologists use this as evidence to show that Archaeopteryx had theropod ancestors.
Significance of the Archaeopteryx in History
Scientists, and those who study dinosaurs, have long known about the historical and biological link between dinosaurs and birds. The Archaeopteryx specimens perhaps embody that discovery better than any other known evidence. Although paleontologists have found other contenders for the place of “first bird”, particularly among the so-named“feathered dinosaurs” in China, Archaeopteryx specimens will always retain the legacy of being the first dinosaurs of their kind known to science. After all, it was the Archaeopteryx which inspired Charles Darwin to say, “Hardly any recent discovery shows more forcibly than this how little we as yet know of the former inhabitants of the world”