10 Facts About Archaeopteryx, the Famous "Dino-Bird"

How Much Do You Know About Archaeopteryx?

Emily Willoughby.

Archaeopteryx is the single most famous transitional form in the fossil record, but this bird-like dinosaur (or dinosaur-like bird) has mystified generations of paleontologists, who continue to study its well-preserved fossils to tease out hints about its appearance, lifestyle and metabolism. On the following slides, you'll discover 10 fascinating Archaeopteryx facts.

Archaeopteryx Was as Much Dinosaur as Bird

Archaeopteryx chasing a juvenile Compsognathus. Wikimedia Commons

The reputation of Archaeopteryx as the first true bird is a bit overblown. True, this animal did possess a coat of feathers, a bird-like beak and a wishbone, but it also retained a handful of teeth, a long, bony tail, and three claws jutting out from the middle of each of its wings, all of which are extremely reptilian characteristics that are not seen in any modern birds. For these reasons, it's every bit as accurate to call Archaeopteryx a dinosaur as it is to call it a bird--a true calling card of a "transitional form" if ever there was one!

Archaeopteryx Was About the Size of a Pigeon

Oxford Museum of Natural History.

The impact of Archaeopteryx has been so disproportionate that many people mistakenly believe this dino-bird was much bigger than it actually was. In fact, Archaeopteryx measured only about 20 inches from head to tail, and the largest individuals didn't weigh much more than two pounds--about the size of a well-fed, modern-day pigeon. As such, this feathered reptile was much, much smaller than the pterosaurs of the Mesozoic Era, to which it was only distantly related.

Archaeopteryx Was Discovered in the Early 1860's

A specimen of Archaeopteryx (Wikimedia Commons).

Although an isolated feather was discovered in Germany in 1860, the first, headless fossil of Archaeopteryx wasn't unearthed until 1861, and it was only in 1863 that this animal was formally named (by the famous English naturalist Richard Owen). Ironically, it's now believed that that single feather may have belonged to an entirely different, but closely related, genus of late Jurassic dino-bird, which has yet to be identified. (See a fossil history of Archaeopteryx.)

Archaeopteryx Was Not Directly Ancestral to Modern Birds

A modern sparrow (Wikimedia Commons).

As far as paleontologists can tell, birds evolved from feathered dinosaurs multiple times during the later Mesozoic Era (witness the four-winged Microraptor, which represented a "dead end" in bird evolution, given that there are no four-winged birds alive today). In fact, modern birds are probably more closely related to the small, feathered theropods of the late Cretaceous period than to the late Jurassic Archaeopteryx. (See the article Was Archaeopteryx a Bird or a Dinosaur?)

The Fossils of Archaeopteryx Are Unusually Well Preserved

Wikimedia Commons.

The Solnhofen limestone beds, in Germany, are renowned for their exquisitely detailed fossils of late Jurassic flora and fauna, dating to 150 million years ago. In the 150 years since the first Archaeopteryx fossil was discovered, researchers have unearthed 10 additional specimens, each of them revealing an enormous amount of anatomical detail. (One of these fossils has since disappeared, presumably stolen for a private collection.) The Solnhofen beds have also yielded the fossils of the tiny dinosaur Compsognathus and the early pterosaur Pterodactylus.

The Feathers of Archaeopteryx Were Unsuited to Powered Flight

Alain Beneteau.

According to one recent analysis, the feathers of Archaeopteryx were structurally weaker than those of comparably sized modern birds, a hint that this dino-bird glided for short intervals (possibly from branch to branch on the same tree) rather than actively flapping its wings. However, not all paleontologists concur, some arguing that Archaeopteryx actually weighed far less than the most widely accepted estimates, and thus may have been capable of brief bursts of powered flight. 

The Discovery of Archaeopteryx Coincided with "The Origin of Species"

origin of species

In 1859, Charles Darwin shook the world of science to its foundations with his theory of natural selection, as described in The Origin of Species. The discovery of Archaeopteryx, clearly a transitional form between dinosaurs and birds, did much to hasten the acceptance of evolutionary theory, though not everyone was convinced (the noted English curmudgeon Richard Owen was slow to change his views) and modern creationists and fundamentalists continue to dispute the very idea of "transitional forms."

Archaeopteryx Had a Relatively Sluggish Metabolism

Wikimedia Commons.

A recent study has concluded, rather surprisingly, that Archaeopteryx hatchlings required almost three years to mature to adult size, a slower growth rate than is seen in comparably sized modern birds. What this implies is that, while Archaeopteryx may well have possessed a primitive warm-blooded metabolism, it wasn't nearly as energetic as its modern relatives, or even the contemporary theropod dinosaurs with which it shared its territory (yet another hint that it may not have been capable of powered flight).

Archaeopteryx Probably Led an Arboreal Lifestyle

Luis Rey.

If Archaeopteryx was in fact a glider rather than an active flier, this would imply a largely tree-bound, or arboreal, existence--but if it was capable of powered flight, then this dino-bird may have been equally comfortable stalking small prey along the edges of lakes and rivers, like many modern birds. Whatever turns out to be the case, it's not unusual for small creatures of any type--birds, mammals or lizards--to live high up in branches; it's even possible, though far from proven, that the first proto-birds learned to fly by falling out of trees.

At Least Some of Archaeopteryx's Feathers Were Black

Archaeopteryx. Nobu Tamura

Amazingly, twenty-first century paleontologists have the technology to examine the fossilized melanosomes (pigment cells) of creatures that have been extinct for tens of millions of years. In 2011, a team of researchers examined the single Archaeopteryx feather discovered in Germany in 1860 (see slide #4), and concluded that it was mostly black. This doesn't necessarily imply that Archaeopteryx looked like a Jurassic raven, but it certainly wasn't brightly colored, like a South American parrot!