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

Archaeopteryx Lithographica

James L. Amos/Wikimedia Commons/CC0 1.0 

Archaeopteryx (whose name means "old wing") is the single most famous transitional form in the fossil record. The bird-like dinosaur (or dinosaur-like bird) has mystified generations of paleontologists, who continue to study its well-preserved fossils to tease out information about its appearance, lifestyle, and metabolism.

01
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Archaeopteryx Was as Much Dinosaur as Bird

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. The animal is the perfect example of a "transitional form," one that links its ancestral group to its descendants.

02
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Archaeopteryx Was About the Size of a Pigeon

The significance of Archaeopteryx is so great that many people mistakenly believe this dino-bird was much larger 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.

03
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Archaeopteryx Was Discovered in the Early 1860s

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). 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.

04
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Archaeopteryx Was Not Directly Ancestral to Modern Birds

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.

05
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The Fossils of Archaeopteryx Are Unusually Well Preserved

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.

06
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The Feathers of Archaeopteryx Were Likely Unsuited to Powered Flight

According to one recent analysis, the feathers of Archaeopteryx were structurally weaker than those of similarly sized modern birds, suggesting that this dino-bird probably 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.

07
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The Discovery of Archaeopteryx Coincided with "The 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 his 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").

08
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Archaeopteryx Had a Relatively Sluggish Metabolism

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 similarly 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).

09
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Archaeopteryx Probably Led an Arboreal Lifestyle

If Archaeopteryx was, in fact, a glider rather than an active flier, this would imply a largely tree-bound, or arboreal, existence. If it was capable of powered flight, however, then this dino-bird may have been equally comfortable stalking small prey along the edges of lakes and rivers, like many modern birds. Whatever 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.

10
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At Least Some of Archaeopteryx's Feathers Were Black

Amazingly, 21st-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 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.