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Archaeopteryx lithographica (Hermann von Meyer, 1861).

Name Means: "Ancient Wing" Length: 2 feet (.65 meters)
Pronounced: ark-ee-OP-ter-iks Weight: 13 oz.
When it lived: Late Jurassic, 150-148 MYA    
Where found: Bavaria, Germany    
    The Archaeopteryx fossil is considered to be one of the most important ever discovered. Archaeopteryx is considered by many to be the link between dinosaurs and birds. It had teeth and claws, but it also had feathers and wings. There are many questions about this animal that still have not been answered. Did it fly or could it only glide? Some think it used its wings to help it jump higher rather than actually fly.
    Archaeopteryx looked very similar to some modern birds, and several of the specimens clearly show what appear to be true feathers. Upon closer examination, however, scientists have found some striking differences between Archaeopteryx and modern birds. Archaeopteryx had a long, stiff, bony tail, unlike modern birds. Each wing had two separate fingers on the leading wing edges that were equipped with sharp, curved claws. The biggest differences, however, are in the skull. It didn't have a beak, but rather a true set of jaws that were equipped with many small, sharp teeth. Internally, there were also many differences in the structure of the hipbones, and Archaeopteryx didn't have a breastbone.
    Since the discovery of a single feather in 1860, only seven additional specimens of Archaeopteryx have been found, all from the Late Jurassic Solnhofen limestone of southern Germany. The first skeleton is now housed at the Natural History Museum of London, and the most spectacular is the famed Berlin Specimen at the Humboldt Museum of Berlin.
    Its name comes from the limestone in which the first discovered fossil was imprinted. This was a very fine-grained limestone, which was cut into blocks and highly polished. Pictures could then be etched into it, making it suitable for lithography, a type of printing.  This fine-grained limestone also retained the delicate impressions of the fragile feathers.
   An Archaeopteryx feather was discovered in 1860, but the following year, a complete specimen was excavated. Since then, only five other specimens have been uncovered, with the best specimens being at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin and the British Museum.  The discovery set off one of the biggest controversies in paleontology history.
   Richard Owen was widely regarded as the leading naturalist of the 19th century. Among his many accomplishments, he published the first important general account of the great group of Mesozoic land-reptiles, to which he gave the now familiar name of Dinosauria.  In short, he was the first scientist to formally recognize their existence.  Owens wrote one of the main reviews of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species for the respected Edinburgh Review. Owen vacillated between accepting or denying evolution but was certain that Darwin's proposed mechanisms were wrong.
    The first Archaeopteryx specimen was discovered only two years after the publication of Darwin's famous book.  In January 1863, Owen bought the archaeopteryx fossil for the British Museum. It fulfilled Darwin's prediction that a proto-bird with unfused wing fingers would be found, but Owen described it unequivocally as a bird.
    In 1868, another renowned British scientist Thomas Henry Huxley interpreted the Archaeopteryx fossil to be a transitional bird having many reptilian features. Using the fossils of Archaeopteryx and Compsognathus, a bird-sized and bird-like dinosaur, Huxley argued that birds and reptiles were descended from common ancestors. Decades later, Huxley's ideas fell out of favor. The recent discovery of many feathered dinosaurs has proven Huxley to have been right.
    In 2004, scientists analyzing a detailed CT scan of Archaeopteryx's braincase 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. (Winter, 2004) 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. (Alnso, et al., 2004)
   There is some controversy about whether Archaeopteryx could genuinely fly, or only hop around and glide from trees. The lack of a large breastbone suggests it was not a strong flier, but flight muscles might have attached to the bird's thick, boomerang-shaped wishbone. The large wings and long tail, however, suggest that it was both stable and maneuverable in the air. The shape of the wings is similar to birds which fly through trees and brush.
 

 

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