The earliest specimen of Archaeopteryx – the ‘first bird’ – was discovered in 1861 and was recognised as a missing link between reptiles and birds. Though they are incredibly important fossils, Archaeopteryx specimens have been very hard to come by.
Since 1861 only 11 full body specimens (most missing their skulls), and one lone feather had been found.
But this month German scientists announced a new specimen – and it’s a beauty, with incredible feather impressions around its legs, and lots of details missing in the other specimens.
Some of the earliest specimens, such as the Berlin specimen (1877), may have had feather impressions around the legs originally, but they were chiselled away by overzealous preparators who were not expecting to find them there.
The new fossil was discovered in 2011 by researchers at the Ludwig Maximilians University, and – like its predecessors – comes from a Bavarian quarry in that Altmühl Valley. The new find reveals that Archaeopteryx had fully developed pennaceous feathers that were 4-5cm long on its hind limbs.
“The new specimen shows that the entire body was covered in pennaceous feathers, and that the hind limbs had long, symmetrical feathers,” write authors including Oliver Rauhut in the journal Nature.
It’s difficult to draw too many conclusions about what these feathers tell us, but they are probably the wrong shape to have been useful for flight, and therefore support the now well-established idea that feathers evolved in dinosaurs for display and insulation before they became useful for getting airborne. Find some more details and a discussion of the significance over at Science magazine.
The Natural History Museum in London still has the first Archaeopteryx specimen used to describe the species by its then director Professor Richard Owen in 1863. Scientists come from across the world to study the ‘London specimen’, and it still plays a central role in today’s debates about the relationship between early birds and feathered dinosaurs.
Many of the other specimens are in German institutions, including the Berlin specimen, which is the most beautiful of all (I have a cast of this at home). One is in the United States in a private institution. Another is in private hands, presumed lost. One was misidentified as a pterosaur and re-identified as Archaeopteryx by palaeontologist John Ostrom in the 1970s.
What colour was Archaeopteryx?