Brief Summary


Archaeopteryx lithographica is the earliest known bird. This fossil is a famous snapshot of evolution ‘in action’.Archaeopteryx lithographica has a combination of dinosaur and bird characters that demonstrate conclusively modern birds are the descendants of small meat-eating dinosaurs. So not all dinosaurs became extinct!Archaeopteryx lithographica had wings and feathers very like those of modern birds and a long bony feathered tail and was about the same size as a magpie.Archaeopteryx skeleton also has features in common with small meat-eating dinosaurs such as teeth with serrated edges and interdental plates and three fingers ending in claws.Archaeopteryx lived in Late Jurassic times, 147 million years ago where Germany is today.
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Comprehensive Description


There has been much debate about if and how well Archaeopteryx could fly. The wings and asymmetric primary flight feathers suggest it had some flying ability. However it would not have been a powerful flapping flyer since it did not have a large breast bone and associated muscles like modern birds.
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Dinosaur features

Archaeopteryx has many skeletal features in common with small meat-eating dinosaurs such as Deinonychus and Velociraptor. Among them are
  • Lightly- built skeleton
  • Teeth with serrated edges and interdental plates
  • Very long arms and hands
  • Half moon-shaped bone in the wrist
  • Three fingers ending in claws
  • Long bony tail
  • Long legs
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What colour was it ?
The feathers of Archaeopteryx are preserved as exquisitely detailed impressions in very fine-grained limestone so there are no actual feather tissues preserved. Artists have come up with a range of possible colour schemes. Very recent work on feathers preserved in Chinese ‘dinobird’ specimens suggests that colours were predominantly black and ginger.
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Distribution habitat

Archaeopteryx fossils have been found only in the Atlmuhl valley in Bavaria, Germany. Ten specimens have been discovered over a period of 150 years from lithographic limestone quarries all within 15 km of each other. 147 million years ago the area was covered by a shallow and often stagnant coastal lagoon fringed with low vegetation. The birds must have fallen into the water and then sank slowly into the thick plastic mud where they were preserved in great detail. The Lithographic limestone is one of the world’s most famous fossil preservations. The beautifully preserved fossils of animals that lived in the lagoon include fishes, crustaceans, crinoids and starfishes, together with land animals that were washed in to or fell into the water - lizards, small dinosaurs and pterosaurs.
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Physical Description


Bird charateristics

Archaeopteryx has characters typical of birds
  • Wings with a flight feather arrangement just like modern birds
  • Aerodynamic flight feathers with an asymmetric vane.
  • Feathered tail
  • A reversed ‘perching’ toe on the hind foot

Recent research at the Natural History Museum using CT has revealed that Archaeopteryx had a bird-like brain with large areas that co-ordinated flight, balance and sight

The same CT-based research showed that the semi-circular canals in the inner ear were just like those of modern birds. This provides further evidence that Archaeopteryx had a sense of balance comparable to modern birds.
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Type Information

The first description of Archaeopteryx lithographica by the German palaeontologist Hermann von Meyer (1861) referenced a fossil of an imprint of a single feather found in a limestone quarry near Solnhofen, Germany. In the same year, the first fossil skeleton of Archaeopteryx was discovered, also in Solnhofen. On 3 October 2011, this skeleton, now housed at the Natural History Museum in London, was officially declared the type specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). This transfer of the holotype status from the feather to the skeleton specimen was due to evidence that the feather may not belong to the species scientists have long referred to as Archaeopteryx lithographica.

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Archaeopteryx!<-- This template has to be "warmed up" before it can be used, for some reason -->

Archaeopteryx (pronounced /ˌɑrkiːˈɒptərɨks/ AR-kee-OP-tər-iks), sometimes referred to by its German name Urvogel ("original bird" or "first bird"), is the earliest and most primitive bird known. The name derives from the Ancient Greek ἀρχαῖος (archaīos) meaning "ancient", and πτέρυξ (ptéryx), meaning "feather" or "wing".

Archaeopteryx lived in the Late Jurassic Period around 150–148 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 shape to a European Magpie, and possibly the size of a raven,[1] Archaeopteryx could grow to about 0.5 metres (1.6 ft) in length. Despite its small size, broad wings, and inferred ability to fly or glide, Archaeopteryx has more in common with small theropod dinosaurs than it does with modern birds. In particular, it shares the following features with the deinonychosaurs (dromaeosaurs and troodontids): jaws with sharp teeth, three fingers with claws, a long bony tail, hyperextensible second toes ("killing claw"), feathers (which also suggest homeothermy), and various skeletal features.[2][3] The features above make Archaeopteryx a clear candidate for a transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds.[4][5] Thus, Archaeopteryx plays an important role not only in the study of the origin of birds but in the study of dinosaurs. The first complete specimen of Archaeopteryx was announced in 1861, only two years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and it became a key piece of evidence in the debate over evolution. Over the years, nine 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, though this is still debated.

Many of these eleven fossils include impressions of feathers—among the oldest direct evidence of such structures. Moreover, because these feathers are an advanced form (flight feathers), these fossils are evidence that the evolution of feathers began before the Late Jurassic.[6]



Archaeopteryx sizes ranging between about 25 and 50 centimeters long and between 25 and 60 centimeters in wingspan
Eight specimens compared to a human in scale.
Outline of bones in forelimbs of Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx. Both have two fingers and an opposed claw with very similar layout, although Archaeopteryx has thinner bones.
Comparison of forelimbs of Deinonychus (left) and Archaeopteryx (right), one of many skeletal similarities between birds and dromaeosaurids.

Archaeopteryx was a primitive bird that lived during the early Tithonian stage of the Jurassic Period, around 150.8–148.5 million years ago.[7] The only 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.[8][9]

Archaeopteryx was roughly the size of a raven,[1] 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 weight of 0.8 to 1 kilogram (1.8 to 2.2 lb).[1] Archaeopteryx feathers, although less documented than its other features, were very similar in structure and design to modern-day bird feathers.[8] However, despite the presence of numerous avian features,[10] Archaeopteryx had many theropod dinosaur characteristics. Unlike modern birds, Archaeopteryx had small teeth[8] as well as a long bony tail, features which Archaeopteryx shared with other dinosaurs of the time.[11]

Because it displays a number of features common to both birds and dinosaurs, Archaeopteryx has often been considered a link between them—possibly the first bird in its change from a land dweller to a bird.[8] In the 1970s, John Ostrom, following T. H. 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 a number of avian features, such as a wishbone, flight feathers, wings and a partially reversed first toe, and a number of 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.[12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19][20]

The first remains of Archaeopteryx were discovered in 1861; 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. Indeed, further research on dinosaurs from the Gobi Desert and China has since provided more evidence of a link between Archaeopteryx and the dinosaurs, such as the Chinese feathered dinosaurs. Archaeopteryx is close to the ancestry of modern birds, and it shows most of the features one would expect in an ancestral bird. However, it may not be the direct ancestor of living birds, and it is uncertain how much evolutionary divergence was already present among other birds at the time.



1880 photo of the Berlin Archaeopteryx specimen, showing leg feathers that were subsequently removed during preparation

Specimens of Archaeopteryx were most notable for their well-developed flight feathers. They were markedly asymmetrical and showed the structure of flight feathers in modern birds, with vanes given stability by a barb-barbule-barbicel arrangement.[21] The tail feathers were less asymmetrical, again in line with the situation in modern birds and also had firm vanes. The thumb, however, did not yet bear a separately movable tuft of stiff feathers.

The body plumage of Archaeopteryx is less well documented and has only been properly researched in the well-preserved Berlin specimen. Thus, as more than one species seems to be involved, the research into the Berlin specimen's feathers does not necessarily hold true for the rest of the species of Archaeopteryx. In the Berlin specimen, there are "trousers" of well-developed feathers on the legs; some of these feathers seem to have a basic contour feather structure but are somewhat decomposed (they lack barbicels as in ratites),[22] but in part they are firm and thus capable of supporting flight.[23]

There was a patch of pennaceous feathers running along the back which was quite similar to the contour feathers of the body plumage of modern birds in being symmetrical and firm, though not as stiff as the flight-related feathers. Apart from that, the feather traces in the Berlin specimen are limited to a sort of "proto-down" not dissimilar to that found in the dinosaur Sinosauropteryx, being decomposed and fluffy, and possibly even appeared more like fur than like feathers in life (though not in their microscopic structure). These occur on the remainder of the body, as far as such structures are both preserved and not obliterated by preparation, and the lower neck.[22]

However, there is no indication of feathering on the upper neck and head. While these may conceivably have been nude as in many closely related feathered dinosaurs for which good specimens are available, this may still be an artifact of preservation. It appears that most Archaeopteryx specimens became embedded in anoxic sediment after drifting some time on their back in the sea—the head and neck and the tail are generally bent downwards, which suggests that the specimens had just started to rot when they were embedded, with tendons and muscle relaxing so that the characteristic shape of the fossil specimens was achieved. This would mean that the skin was already softened and loose, which is bolstered by the fact that in some specimens the flight feathers were starting to detach at the point of embedding in the sediment. So it is hypothesized that the pertinent specimens moved along the sea bed in shallow water for some time before burial, the head and upper neck feathers sloughing off, while the more firmly attached tail feathers remained.[24]


As in the wings of modern birds, the flight feathers of Archaeopteryx were somewhat asymmetrical and the tail feathers were rather broad. This implies that the wings and tail were used for lift generation. However, it is unclear whether Archaeopteryx was simply a glider or capable of flapping flight. The lack of a bony breastbone suggests that Archaeopteryx was not a very strong flier, but flight muscles might have attached to the thick, boomerang-shaped wishbone, the platelike coracoids, or perhaps to a cartilaginous sternum. The sideways orientation of the glenoid (shoulder) joint between scapula, coracoid and humerus—instead of the dorsally angled arrangement found in modern birds—suggests that Archaeopteryx was unable to lift its wings above its back, a requirement for the upstroke found in modern flapping flight. Thus, it seems likely that Archaeopteryx was indeed unable to use flapping flight as modern birds do, but it may well have utilized a downstroke-only flap-assisted gliding technique.[25]

Anatomical illustration comparing the "frond-tail" of Archaeopteryx with the "fan-tail" of a modern bird

Archaeopteryx wings were relatively large, which would have resulted in a low stall speed and reduced turning radius. The short and rounded shape of the wings would have increased drag, but could also have improved Archaeopteryx' ability to fly through cluttered environments such as trees and brush (similar wing shapes are seen in birds which fly through trees and brush, such as crows and pheasants). The presence of "hind wings", asymmetrical flight feathers stemming from the legs similar to those seen in dromaeosaurids such as Microraptor, would also have added to the aerial mobility of Archaeopteryx. The first detailed study of the hind wings by Longrich in 2006 suggested that the structures formed up to 12% of the total airfoil. This would have reduced stall speed by up to 6% and turning radius by up to 12%.[23]

The feathers of Archaeopteryx were asymmetrical. This has been interpreted as evidence that it was a flyer, as flightless birds tend to have symmetrical feathers. However, some scientists, including Thomson and Speakman, have questioned this. They studied more than 70 families of living birds, and found that some flightless types do have a range of asymmetry in their feathers, and that the feathers of Archaeopteryx fall into this range.[26]


In 2010, Robert L. Nudds and Gareth J. Dyke in the journal Science published a paper in which they analysed the rachises of the primary feathers of Confuciusornis and Archaeopteryx. The analysis suggested that the rachises on these two genera were thinner and weaker than those compared to modern birds relative to body weight. The authors determined that Archaeopteryx, along with Confuciusornis, were unable to use flapping flight.[27] This study, however, was criticized by Currie and Luis Chiappe. Chiappe suggested that it is difficult to measure the rachises of fossilized feathers, and Currie speculated that Archaeopteryx and Confuciusornis must have been able to fly to some degree, as their fossils are preserved in what is believed to have been in marine or lake sediments, suggesting that they must have been able to fly over deep water.[28] Gregory Paul also disagreed with the study, arguing in a 2010 response that Nudds and Dyke had overestimated the weights of these early birds, and that more accurate weight estimates allowed powered flight even with relatively narrow rachises. Nudds and Dyke had assumed a weight of 250 grams for the Munich specimen Archaeopteryx, a young juvenile, based on published weight estimates of larger specimens. Paul argued that a more reasonable body weight estimate for the Munich specimen is about 140 grams. Paul also criticized the measurements of the rachises themselves, noting that the feathers in the Munich specimen are poorly preserved. Nudds and Dyke reported a diameter of .75 millimetres (0.030 in) for the longest primary feather, which Paul could not confirm using photographs. Paul measured some of the inner primary feathers, finding rachises 1.25-1.4 mm across.[29] Despite these criticisms, Nudds and Dyke stood by their original conclusions. They claimed that Paul's statement that an adult Archaeopteryx would have been a better flyer than the juvenile Munich specimen was dubious. This, they reasoned, would require even thicker ranchis, evidence for which has not yet been presented.[30]

In 2004, scientists analyzing a detailed CT scan of the braincase of Archaeopteryx concluded that its brain was significantly larger than that of most dinosaurs, indicating that it possessed the brain size necessary for flying. The overall brain anatomy was reconstructed using the scan. The reconstruction showed that the regions associated with vision took up nearly one-third of the brain. Other well-developed areas involved hearing and muscle coordination.[31] The skull scan also revealed the structure of the inner ear. The structure more closely resembles that of modern birds than the inner ear of reptiles. These characteristics taken together suggest that Archaeopteryx had the keen sense of hearing, balance, spatial perception and coordination needed to fly.[32]

Archaeopteryx continues to play an important part in scientific debates about the origin and evolution of birds. Some scientists see it as a semi-arboreal climbing animal, following the idea that birds evolved from tree-dwelling gliders (the "trees down" hypothesis for the evolution of flight proposed by O.C. Marsh). Other scientists see Archaeopteryx as running quickly along the ground, supporting the idea that birds evolved flight by running (the "ground up" hypothesis proposed by Samuel Wendell Williston). Still others suggest that Archaeopteryx might have been at home both in the trees and on the ground, like modern crows, and this latter view is what today is considered best-supported by morphological characters. Altogether, it appears that the species was not particularly specialized for running on the ground or for perching. Considering the current knowledge of flight-related morphology, a scenario outlined by Elżanowski in 2002, namely that Archaeopteryx used its wings mainly to escape predators by glides punctuated with shallow downstrokes to reach successively higher perches, and alternatively to cover longer distances by (mainly) gliding down from cliffs or treetops, appears quite reasonable.[24]


Growth trends compared with other dinosaurs and birds

A histological study by Erickson, Norell, Zhongue and others in 2009 showed that Archaeopteryx had grew relatively slowly relative to modern birds, based on growth lines found in slices of Archaeopteryx bones.[1] According to their study, all known skeletons known of Archaeopteryx came from juvenile specimens. They estimated that Archaeopteryx reached adult size in about 970 days (about 2 years and 8 months), and weighed between 0.8 - 1 kilogram. The study also found that the birds Jeholornis and Sapeornis grew slowly, as did the dromaeosaurid Mahakala. The birds Confuciusornis and Ichtyornis, however, grew very quickly, following a growth trend similar to that of modern birds.[33] One of the few modern birds which exhibit slow growth is the flightless kiwi, and the authors speculated that Archaeopteryx and the kiwi had similar metabolisms.[1]


The richness and diversity of the Solnhofen limestones in which all specimens of Archaeopteryx have been found have shed light on an ancient Jurassic Bavaria strikingly different from the present day. The latitude was similar to Florida, though the climate was likely to have been drier, as evidenced by fossils of plants with adaptations for arid conditions and lack of terrestrial sediments characteristic of rivers. Evidence of plants, though scarce, include cycads and conifers while animals found include a large number of insects, small lizards, pterosaurs and Compsognathus.[34]

The excellent preservation of Archaeopteryx fossils and other terrestrial fossils found at Solnhofen indicates that they did not travel far before becoming preserved.[35] The Archaeopteryx specimens found are likely therefore to have lived on the low islands surrounding the Solnhofen lagoon rather than been corpses that drifted in from farther away. Archaeopteryx skeletons are considerably less numerous in the deposits of Solnhofen than those of pterosaurs, of which seven genera have been found.[36] The pterosaurs included such as Rhamphorhynchus, the group which dominated the niche currently occupied by seabirds, and which became extinct at the end of the Jurassic. The pterosaurs, which also included Pterodactylus, were common enough that it is unlikely that the specimens found are vagrants from the larger islands 50 km (31 miles) to the north.[37]

The islands that surrounded the Solnhofen lagoon were low lying, semi-arid and sub-tropical with a long dry season and little rain.[38] The closest modern analogue for the Solnhofn conditions is said to be Orca Basin in the northern Gulf of Mexico, though that is much deeper than the Solnhofn lagoons.[36] The flora of these islands was adapted to these dry conditions and consisted mostly of low (3 m [10 ft]) shrubs.[39] Contrary to reconstructions of Archaeopteryx climbing large trees, these seem to have been mostly absent from the islands; few trunks have been found in the sediments and fossilized tree pollen is also absent.

The lifestyle of Archaeopteryx is difficult to reconstruct and there are several theories regarding it. Some researchers suggest that it was primarily adapted to life on the ground,[40] while other researchers suggest that it was principally arboreal.[41] The absence of trees does not preclude Archaeopteryx from an arboreal lifestyle; several species of extant bird live exclusively in low shrubs. Various aspects of the morphology of Archaeopteryx point to either an arboreal or ground existence, the length of its legs, the elongation in its feet; and some authorities consider it likely to have been a generalist capable of feeding in both shrubs, open ground and even alongside the shores of the lagoon.[37] It most likely hunted small prey, seizing it with its jaws if it was small enough or with its claws if it was larger.

History of discovery

Timeline of Archaeopteryx discoveries. (Click to enlarge)

Over the years, ten body fossil specimens of Archaeopteryx and a feather that may belong to it have been found. All of the fossils come from the limestone deposits, quarried for centuries, near Solnhofen, Germany.[34][42]

The famous, single feather

The initial discovery, a single feather, was unearthed in 1860 and described a year later by Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer. It is currently located at the Humboldt Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. This is generally assigned to Archaeopteryx and was the initial holotype, but whether it actually is a feather of this species or another, as yet undiscovered, proto-bird is unknown. There are some indications it is indeed not from the same animal as most of the skeletons (the "typical" A. lithographica).[43]

Soon after, the first skeleton, known as the London Specimen (BMNH 37001),[44] was unearthed in 1861 near Langenaltheim, Germany and given to a local physician Karl Häberlein in return for medical services. He then sold it to the Natural History Museum in London, where it remains.[34] Missing most of its head and neck, it was described in 1863 by Richard Owen as Archaeopteryx macrura, who assumed it did not belong to the same species as the feather. In the subsequent 4th edition of his On the Origin of Species,[45] Charles Darwin described how some authors had maintained "that the whole class of birds came suddenly into existence during the eocene period; but now we know, on the authority of Professor Owen, that a bird certainly lived during the deposition of the upper greensand; and still more recently, that strange bird, the Archeopteryx, with a long lizard-like tail, bearing a pair of feathers on each joint, and with its wings furnished with two free claws, has been discovered in the oolitic slates of Solnhofen. Hardly any recent discovery shows more forcibly than this how little we as yet know of the former inhabitants of the world."[46]

Replica of the London Archaeopteryx.

The Greek term "pteryx" (πτερυξ) primarily means "wing", but can also designate merely "feather". Von Meyer suggested this in his description. At first he referred to a single feather which appeared like a modern bird's remex (wing feather), but he had heard of and been shown a rough sketch of the London specimen, to which he referred as a "Skelet eines mit Federn bedeckten Thiers" ("skeleton of an animal covered in feathers"). In German, this ambiguity is resolved by the term Schwinge which does not necessarily mean a wing used for flying. Urschwinge was the favored translation of Archaeopteryx among German scholars in the late 19th century. In English, "ancient pinion" offers a rough approximation.

Since then ten specimens have been recovered:

The Berlin Specimen (HMN 1880) was discovered in 1876 or 1877 on the Blumenberg near Eichstätt, Germany, by Jakob Niemeyer. He exchanged this precious fossil for a cow, with Johann Dörr. Placed on sale in 1881, with potential buyers including O.C. Marsh of Yale University's Peabody Museum, it was bought by the Humboldt Museum für Naturkunde, where it is now displayed. The transaction was financed by Ernst Werner von Siemens, founder of the famous company that bears his name.[34] Described in 1884 by Wilhelm Dames, it is the most complete specimen, and the first with a complete head. Once classified as a new species, A. siemensii, a recent evaluation supports the A. siemensii species definition.[24]

Cast of the Maxberg Specimen

Composed of a torso, the Maxberg Specimen (S5) was discovered in 1956 or 1958 near Langenaltheim and described in 1959 by Heller. It is currently missing, though it was once exhibited at the Maxberg Museum in Solnhofen. It belonged to Eduard Opitsch, who loaned it to the museum. After his death in 1991, the specimen was discovered to be missing and may have been stolen or sold. The specimen is missing its head and tail, although the rest of the skeleton is mostly intact.

Slab of the Haarlem Specimen

The Haarlem Specimen (TM 6428, also known as the Teyler Specimen) was discovered in 1855 near Riedenburg, Germany and described as a Pterodactylus crassipes in 1875 by von Meyer. It was reclassified in 1970 by John Ostrom and is currently located at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands. It was the very first specimen, despite the classification error. It is also one of the least complete specimens, consisting mostly of limb bones and isolated cervical vertebrae and ribs.

The Eichstätt Specimen (JM 2257) was discovered in 1951 or 1955 near Workerszell, Germany and described by Peter Wellnhofer in 1974. Currently located at the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, it is the smallest specimen and has the second best head. It is possibly a separate genus (Jurapteryx recurva) or species (A. recurva).

The Solnhofen Specimen (BSP 1999) was discovered in the 1960s near Eichstätt, Germany and described in 1988 by Wellnhofer. Currently located at the Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum in Solnhofen, it was originally classified as Compsognathus by an amateur collector. It is the largest specimen known and may belong to a separate genus and species, Wellnhoferia grandis. It is missing only portions of the neck, tail, backbone, and head.

The Munich Specimen

The Munich Specimen (S6, formerly known as the Solnhofen-Aktien-Verein Specimen) was discovered in 1991 near Langenaltheim and described in 1993 by Wellnhofer. It is currently located at the Paläontologisches Museum München in Munich. What was initially believed to be a bony sternum turned out to be part of the coracoid,[47] but a cartilaginous sternum may have been present. Only the front of its face is missing. It may be a new species, A. bavarica.

Daiting Specimen

An eighth, fragmentary specimen was discovered in the late 1980s, not in Solnhofen limestone, but in somewhat younger sediments at Daiting, Suevia. It is therefore known as the Daiting Specimen, and has been known since 1996 only from a cast, briefly shown at the Naturkundemuseum in Bamberg. Long having been missing and therefore dubbed the 'Phantom', it was purchased by palaeontologist Raimund Albertsdörfer in 2009.[48] It was on display for the first time with six other original fossils of Archaeopteryx at the Munich Mineral Show in October 2009.[49] A first, quick look by scientists indicate that this specimen might represent a new species of Archaeopteryx.[50] It was found in a limestone bed that was a few hundred thousand years younger than the other finds.[48]

Bürgermeister-Müller ("chicken wing") Specimen

Another fragmentary fossil was found in 2000. It is in private possession and on loan to the Bürgermeister-Müller Museum in Solenhofen, so it is called the Bürgermeister-Müller Specimen. As the fragment represents the remains of a single wing of Archaeopteryx, the popular name of this fossil is "chicken wing".

Long in a private collection, the Thermopolis Specimen (WDC CSG 100) was discovered in Germany and described in 2005 by Mayr, Pohl, and Peters. Donated to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyoming, it has the best-preserved head and feet; most of the neck and the lower jaw have not been preserved. The "Thermopolis" specimen was described in the December 2, 2005 Science journal article as "A well-preserved Archaeopteryx specimen with theropod features"; it shows that the Archaeopteryx lacked a reversed toe—a universal feature of birds—limiting its ability to perch on branches and implying a terrestrial or trunk-climbing lifestyle.[51] This has been interpreted as evidence of theropod ancestry. The specimen also has a hyperextendible second toe. "Until now, the feature was thought to belong only to the species' close relatives, the deinonychosaurs."[52] In 1988, Gregory S. Paul claimed to have found evidence of a hyperextensible toe, but this was not verified and accepted by other scientists until the Thermopolis specimen was described.[53]

The Thermopolis Specimen

This tenth and latest specimen was assigned to Archaeopteryx siemensii in 2007.[54] The specimen itself, currently on loan to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller, Alberta, Canada, is considered the most complete and well preserved Archaeopteryx remains yet.[54]


Today, the fossils are usually assigned to a single species A. lithographica, but the taxonomic history is complicated. Dozens of names have been published for the handful of specimens, most of which are simply spelling errors (lapsus). Originally, the name A. lithographica only referred to the single feather described by von Meyer. In 1960, Swinton proposed that the name Archaeopteryx lithographica be officially transferred from the feather to the London specimen.[55] The ICZN did suppress the plethora of alternative names initially proposed for the first skeleton specimens,[56] which mainly resulted from the acrimonious dispute between von Meyer and his opponent Johann Andreas Wagner (whose Griphosaurus problematicus—"problematic riddle-lizard"—was a vitriolic sneer at von Meyer's Archaeopteryx).[57] In addition, descriptions of Archaeopteryx fossils as pterosaurs before their true nature was realized were also suppressed.[4][58]

Eichstätt Specimen, once considered a distinct genus, Jurapteryx

The relationships of the specimens are problematic. Most subsequent specimens have been given their own species at one point or another. The Berlin specimen has been designated as Archaeornis siemensii, the Eichstätt specimen as Jurapteryx recurva, the Munich specimen as Archaeopteryx bavarica and the Solnhofen specimen was designated as Wellnhoferia grandis.

The Solnhofen Specimen, by some considered as belonging to the genus Wellnhoferia

Recently, it has been argued that all the specimens belong to the same species.[59] However, significant differences exist among the specimens. In particular, the Munich, Eichstätt, Solnhofen and Thermopolis specimens differ from the London, Berlin, and Haarlem specimens in being smaller or much larger, having different finger proportions, having more slender snouts, lined with forward-pointing teeth and possible presence of a sternum. These differences are as large as or larger than the differences seen today between adults of different bird species. However, it is also possible that these differences could be explained by different ages of the living birds.

Finally, it has been noted that the feather, the first specimen of Archaeopteryx described, does not agree well with the flight-related feathers of Archaeopteryx. It certainly is a flight feather of a contemporary species, but its size and proportions indicate that it may belong to another, smaller species of feathered theropod, of which only this feather is so far known.[43] As the feather was the original type specimen, this has created significant nomenclatorial confusion. In 2007, two sets of scientists petitioned the ICZN requesting that the London specimen be made the new holotype specimen, or neotype.[60]


If two names are given, the first denotes the original describer of the "species", the second the author on whom the given name combination is based. As always in zoological nomenclature, putting an author's name in parentheses denotes that the taxon was originally described in a different genus.

  • Pterodactylus crassipes Meyer, 1857 [suppressed in favor of A. lithographica 1977 per ICZN Opinion 1070]
  • Rhamphorhynchus crassipes (Meyer, 1857) (as Pterodactylus (Rhamphorhynchus) crassipes) [suppressed in favor of A. lithographica 1977 per ICZN Opinion 1070]
  • Archaeopteryx lithographica Meyer, 1861 [nomen conservandum]
  • Scaphognathus crassipes (Meyer, 1857) Wagner, 1861 [suppressed in favor of A. lithographica 1977 per ICZN Opinion 1070]
  • Archaeopterix lithographica Anon., 1861 [lapsus]
  • Griphosaurus problematicus Wagner, 1862 [nomen oblitum 1961 per ICZN Opinion 607]
  • Griphornis longicaudatus Woodward, 1862 [nomen oblitum 1961 per ICZN Opinion 607]
  • Griphosaurus longicaudatum (Woodward, 1862) [lapsus]
  • Griphosaurus longicaudatus (Owen, 1862) [nomen oblitum 1961 per ICZN Opinion 607]
  • Archaeopteryx macrura Owen, 1862 [nomen oblitum 1961 per ICZN Opinion 607]
  • Archaeopterix macrura Owen, 1862 [lapsus]
  • Archaeopterix macrurus Egerton, 1862 [lapsus]
  • Archeopteryx macrurus Owen, 1863 [unjustified emendation]
  • Archaeopteryx macroura Vogt, 1879 [lapsus]
  • Archaeopteryx siemensii Dames, 1897
  • Archaeopteryx siemensi Dames, 1897 [lapsus]
  • Archaeornis siemensii (Dames, 1897) Petronievics, 1917[54]
  • Archaeopteryx oweni Petronievics, 1917 [nomen oblitum 1961 per ICZN Opinion 607]
  • Gryphornis longicaudatus Lambrecht, 1933 [lapsus]
  • Gryphosaurus problematicus Lambrecht, 1933 [lapsus]
  • Archaeopteryx macrourus Owen, 1862 fide Lambrecht, 1933 [lapsus]
  • Archaeornis siemensi (Dames, 1897) fide Lambrecht, 1933? [lapsus]
  • Archeopteryx macrura Ostrom, 1970 [lapsus]
  • Archaeopteryx crassipes (Meyer, 1857) Ostrom, 1972 [suppressed in favor of A. lithographica 1977 per ICZN Opinion 1070]
  • Archaeopterix lithographica di Gregorio, 1984 [lapsus]
  • Archaeopteryx recurva Howgate, 1984
  • Jurapteryx recurva (Howgate, 1984) Howgate, 1985
  • Archaeopteryx bavarica Wellnhofer, 1993
  • Wellnhoferia grandis Elżanowski, 2001

The last 4 taxa may be valid genera and species.

"Archaeopteryx" vicensensis (Anon. fide Lambrecht, 1933) is a nomen nudum for what appears to be an undescribed pterosaur.



Beginning in 1985, a group including astronomer Fred Hoyle and physicist Lee Spetner published a series of papers claiming that the feathers on the Berlin and London specimens of Archaeopteryx were forged.[61][62][63][64] Their claims were repudiated by Alan J. Charig and others at the British Museum (Natural History).[65] Most of their evidence for a forgery was based on unfamiliarity with the processes of lithification; for example, they proposed that based on the difference in texture associated with the feathers, feather impressions were applied to a thin layer of cement,[62] without realizing that feathers themselves would have caused a textural difference.[65] They also expressed disbelief that slabs would split so smoothly, or that one half of a slab containing fossils would have good preservation, but not the counterslab.[61][63] These, though, are common properties of Solnhofen fossils because the dead animals would fall onto hardened surfaces which would form a natural plane for the future slabs to split along, leaving the bulk of the fossil on one side and little on the other.[65] They also misinterpreted the fossils, claiming that the tail was forged as one large feather,[62] when this is visibly not the case.[65] In addition, they claimed that the other specimens of Archaeopteryx known at the time did not have feathers,[61][62] which is untrue; the Maxberg and Eichstätt specimens have obvious feathers.[65] Finally, the motives they suggested for a forgery are not strong, and contradictory; one is that Richard Owen wanted to forge evidence in support of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which is unlikely given Owen's views toward Darwin and his theory. The other is that Owen wanted to set a trap for Darwin, hoping the latter would support the fossils so Owen could discredit him with the forgery; this is unlikely because Owen himself wrote a detailed paper on the London specimen, so such an action would certainly backfire.[66]

Charig et al. pointed to the presence of hairline cracks in the slabs running through both rock and fossil impressions, and mineral growth over the slabs that had occurred before discovery and preparation, as evidence that the feathers were original.[65] Spetner et al. then attempted to show that the cracks would have naturally propagated through their postulated cement layer,[67] but neglected to account for the fact that the cracks were old and had been filled with calcite, and thus were not able to propagate.[66] They also attempted to show the presence of cement on the London specimen through X-ray spectroscopy, and did find something that was not rock.[67] However, it was not cement, either, and is most probably from a fragment of silicone rubber left behind when molds were made of the specimen.[66] Their suggestions have not been taken seriously by palaeontologists, as their evidence was largely based on misunderstandings of geology, and they never discussed the other feather-bearing specimens, which have increased in number since then. Charig et al. reported a discoloration: a dark band between two layers of limestone – however, they say it is the product of sedimentation.[65] It is natural for limestone to take on the color of its surroundings and most limestones are colored (if not color banded) to some degree[68] – the darkness was attributed to such impurities. They also mention that a complete absence of air bubbles in the rock slabs is further proof that the specimen is authentic.[65]

Archaeopteryx and Protoavis

In 1984, Sankar Chatterjee discovered fossils which he claimed in 1991 belonged to a fossil bird far older than Archaeopteryx. These fossils, believed to be around 210 to 225 million years old, have been assigned the name Protoavis.[69] The fossils are too badly preserved to allow an estimate of flying ability; although Chatterjee's reconstructions usually show feathers, many paleontologists, including Paul (2002) and Witmer (2002) have rejected the claims that Protoavis was an earlier bird (or, alternately, that it existed at all).[39][70] The fossils were found disarticulated, and were collected from different locations. Because the fossils are in poor condition, Archaeopteryx remains the earliest universally recognized bird.[71]

Phylogenetic position

Modern paleontology has consistently placed Archaeopteryx as the most primitive bird. It is not thought to be a true ancestor of modern birds but, rather, a close relative of that ancestor (see Avialae and Aves).[72] Nonetheless, Archaeopteryx is so often used as a model of the true ancestral bird that it has seemed almost heretical to suggest otherwise. Several authors have done so.[70] Lowe (1935)[73] and Thulborn (1984)[74] questioned whether Archaeopteryx truly was the first bird. They suggested that Archaeopteryx was a dinosaur that was no more closely related to birds than were other dinosaur groups. Kurzanov (1987) suggested that Avimimus was more likely to be the ancestor of all birds than Archaeopteryx.[75] Barsbold (1983)[76] and Zweers and Van den Berge (1997)[77] noted that many maniraptoran lineages are extremely birdlike, and suggested that different groups of birds may have descended from different dinosaur ancestors.

In popular culture

Historical painting of Archaeopteryx by Heinrich Harder, from around 1916

Archaeopteryx is the best known early bird and has thus received widespread attention. Its easily recognizable appearance and the intense public interest in dinosaurs have caused Archaeopteryx to become a feature of worldwide popular culture.

A main belt asteroid discovered in 1991, 9860 Archaeopteryx, was named in honour of the genus.[78][79]

In one of the "strangest" appearances of Archaeopteryx in popular culture, Alfred Jarry's 1897 play Ubu cocu, ou l'Archéopteryx ('Ubu cuckolded, or the Archaeopteryx') includes an Archaeopteryx as an important character.[80]

The second book in the Time Machine series, Search for Dinosaurs, takes the reader on a journey to the Mesozoic to find and photograph an Archaeopteryx.[81]

See also


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Further reading

  • de Beer, G.R. (1954). Archaeopteryx lithographica: a study based upon the British Museum specimen. Trustees of the British Museum, London.
  • Chambers, P. (2002). Bones of Contention: The Fossil that Shook Science. John Murray, London. ISBN 0-7195-6059-4.
  • Feduccia, A. (1996). The Origin and Evolution of Birds. Yale University Press, New Haven. ISBN 0-300-06460-8.
  • Heilmann, G. (1926). The Origin of Birds. Witherby, London.
  • Huxley T.H. (1871). Manual of the anatomy of vertebrate animals. London.
  • von Meyer, H. (1861). Archaeopteryx litographica (Vogel-Feder) und Pterodactylus von Solenhofen. Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geognosie, Geologie und Petrefakten-Kunde. 1861: 678–679, plate V [Article in German] Fulltext at Google Books.
  • Shipman, P. (1998). Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. ISBN 0-297-84156-4.
  • Wellnhofer, P. (2008). Archaeopteryx. Der Urvogel von Solnhofen (in German). Verlag Friedrich Pfeil, Munich. ISBN 978-3-89937-076-8
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