The Archaeopteryx is very commonly known as the first bird that lived on the earth. Although older avian specimens have been discovered, the Archaeopteryx has not lost its popularity and is still one the most well-known Jurassic vertebrates.
The fossils of the Archaeopteryx have been discovered in Germany. They resemble theropod dinosaurs as well as birds. They probably resemble dinosaurs more. Scientists have speculated that the creature may have been related to the ancestors of modern birds as opposed it having given rise to birds.
The Archaeopteryx had distinctive feathers and a prominent tail. Its ability to fly is considered suspect by scientists. Many paleontologists consider the Archaeopteryx to be a crawling vertebrate which could possibly glide.
The Archaeopteryx weighed a little less than kilo. Its length was about 30 to 50 centimeters. It existed in the Tithonian age of the Jurassic period. This was approximately 150 to 147 million years ago.
The name Archaeopteryx is composed of two words, 'archaeo' and 'pteryx'. 'Archaeo' is derived from the Greek word 'archeos' which translates to 'antique'. 'Pteryx' translates to 'feather' in Greek. This name was chosen as the organism was defined by a single feather specimen initially.
The specific name Archaeopteryx lithographica was probably chosen for the organism as the fossils looked like inscriptions on stone.
The German styling for the creature, 'Urvogel', stands for 'first bird', as it was once the oldest discovered avian.
- The Archaeopteryx is classified under class Aves. But many of its features match theropods. In fact, the feather specimen which defines the Archaeopteryx lithographica may have belonged to a theropod dinosaur.
- There were many different sub species of the Archaeopteryx that were described by paleontologists. Out of these, only the A. lithographica and A. seimensii are considered canon. The others are presumed to be synonyms of these two.
- While anatomical variances do exist amongst these species, many scientists cite reasons of age and gender for these dissimilarities.
Discovery of fossils
The first and last specimens were discovered more than a century apart. When fossils were found in the late nineteen hundreds, most of them were sold to the highest bidder. As a result, many of them lie in private collections today. And a lot of them were discarded or lost.
But despite these hindrances, many of the Archaeopteryx remains are well preserved in German museums.
The largest Solnhofen fossil was more than double in size of the smallest Eichstatt sample. This may be due to the fact that the smaller remains were those of a juvenile.
Features similar to birds
The Archaeopteryx had a beak similar to birds. The beak possessed teeth however. It lacked a proper keel bone and had a flat sternal bone. But it speculated there were muscle attachments along the sternum and ribs which allowed the Archaeopteryx to ascend from the ground while flying.
The body of the Archaeopteryx was light and so were its bones. These are characters that are thought to have given rise to birds.
Features similar to dinosaurs
The Archaeopteryx had more skeletal similarities to theropod dinosaurs like the Deinonychus. It had three fingers on its forelegs and one of them had a claw. Its hind leg bones like the femur and tibia also resembled theropods.
The beak of the Archaeopteryx possessed acute teeth much like carnivorous dinosaurs.
Its feathers resembled those of dromaeosaurid dinosaurs.
The tail of the Archaeopteryx was composed of bones, just like feathered theropods.
Nature of feathers
The feathers of the Archaeopteryx were not as highly developed as those of modern birds. They may not have even resembled feathers and looked like fur from afar.
Studies by Ray Carney have determined that the color of the Archaeopteryx feathers was predominantly black.
It is thought that this exoskeleton could not have allowed the Archaeopteryx to achieve lofty heights while flying.
Its feathers were asymmetric.
- The Archaeopteryx was the size of the modern day raven.
- It had proportionately longer pair of wings. These could not be flapped in the fashion of modern birds. Hence, they could not have offered a strong flight to the Archaeopteryx.
- Its eyes were large as compared to the dimensions its head.
- The neck of the Archaeopteryx was moderately long. It lacked feathers. The head of the organism also was feather-less.
- The body of the Archaeopteryx was compact and light. Yet it was not so light that it could have permitted the creature of ascend very high above the ground.
- The Archaeopteryx had a long tail. This was covered by feathers as well.
- The hind legs of the Archaeopteryx very long and slender. They possessed three digits directed forward and one digit directed backwards. This was a characteristic feature of theropods.
Habits and habitat
- The Archaeopteryx was carnivorous. It fed on insects, lizard like reptiles and other small organisms. It also ate the ectoparasites present on its body.
- Scientists believe that it dwelled predominantly on land, occasionally climbing up trees, similar to peacock.
- Its habitat did not have tall trees. But this does not eliminate arboreal habits as some birds live exclusively in shrubs and bushes.
- Its surroundings consisted of small lagoons and islands. It is possible that the Archaeopteryx never left this mangrove like environment.
- Despite of possessing clawed toes, it is likely that the Archaeopteryx was not a hunter bird.
Related and coexisting species
It was most definitely similar to dinosaurs like the Sinosauropteryx, Buitreraptor and Deinonychus.
It coexisted with the Compsognathus, Anurognathus and the Pterodactylus.
The Archaeopteryx has proven to be the connection between dinosaurs and birds. It unearthing succeeded Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ only by a few years and validated it.
The Archaeopteryx had more structural similarities to dinosaurs. This shows that it was only distantly related to birds; birds did not directly evolve from the Archaeopteryx.
It is the archetypal species showing how all living beings are intertwined and it has never stopped fascinating scientists ever since its discovery.