This week’s Fossil of the Week features the only North American specimen of one of the world’s most famous (and important) prehistoric animals, the Archaeopteryx. First discovered in Germany in 1861, Archaeopteryx was long considered the “first bird,” and the fossil received much attention right from the beginning as it seemed to confirm Charles Darwin’s then-recently published (1859) theories on evolution.
Archaeopteryx, Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, WY
While it is probably a misnomer to call Archaeopteryx the “first bird,” the animal does
represent an important evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds and was likely fairly close to the ancestor of modern birds. There is still debate about whether or not Archaeopteryx was more of a bird or more of a dinosaur. While it had many bird-like features such as a fairly large brain and flight feathers similar to those of modern birds, it also had many dinosaur-like features. Archaeopteryx had teeth, which certainly was a characteristic of its dinosaur relatives, but it also had ankle bones that were not fused like those of a bird, and the fossil specimen in Thermopolis proved that the animal did not have a reverse-facing toe, a feature which is common to all birds.
Archaeopteryx was among the earliest dinosaur discoveries, and it has maintained its place among the most important fossils ever collected. To date there have been only a dozen that have been found, all in the Jurassic period limestone fossil beds in Solnhofen, Germany. This limestone dates to about 150 million years ago, and fossil remains indicate that the area then was a warm, shallow lagoon environment with small islands around. Plenty of marine animals have been found in the limestone, but so have land vertebrates such as the dinosaur Compsognathus, which in fact looks very similar superficially to an Archaeopteryx, but lacked feathers and was more clearly a dinosaur.
There are still several scientific debates about Archaeopteryx. Some scholars are unsure if it was capable of sustained flapping flight, perhaps using its wings to glide from tree to tree in a relatively dense forest canopy. Paleontologists generally refer to the creature as a dinosaur, but it was definitely a transitionary animal between small raptor-type dinosaurs and birds. Of the dozen existing Archaeopteryx fossils, the “London Specimen” is the original and is a wonderful fossil but is missing the head and most of the neck. A later fossil known as the “Berlin Specimen” was found in 1874 and is the most complete of all the Archaeopteryx fossils. The “Thermopolis Specimen” has the most complete head and feet. The fossil was in private hands for many years in Switzerland before being purchased and donated anonymously to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.
Archaeopteryx is truly a transitionary fossil, and the fact that it has so many bird and dinosaur features clearly demonstrates the evolutionary link between the two. For an up-close look at this small but amazing animal, visit the Wyoming Dinosaur Center!