10 Facts About Archaeopteryx

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Evolution is a marvelous thing. When Archaeopteryx was first discovered, it put a major feather in Darwin’s cap. Today, this raven-sized critter remains one of the most important—and controversial—dinosaurs ever found.

1. It Was the First Feathered Dino Known to Science.

Archaeopteryx initially came to light in the 1860s and caused quite a ruckus in the scientific community. Though the animal had several decidedly un-bird-like features (teeth, clawed fingers, a long, bony tail, etc.), some well-preserved skeletons were surrounded by a feathery coat. At the time, this was an earth-shattering discovery. Since then, however, dozens of other feathered dinos have been unearthed—including one species that was over 30 feet long!

2. Archaeopteryx Had Nasty-Looking “Velociraptor Claws."

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Beautiful and dangerous. Like the “raptors” in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (more on those guys here), the closely-related Archaeopteryx had a curved killing-claw on the second toe of each foot. These digits were hyperextendible, meaning that they could be held high off the ground to keep the tips sharp and ready for action. 

3. It Was Discovered Just Two Years After Charles Darwin Published On the Origin of Species.

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“The fossil Bird with the long tail and fingers to its wings,” Darwin gleefully wrote, “is by far the greatest fossil of recent times.” His book had predicted that a menagerie of new “transitional fossils” would soon be found and, with its combination of “reptilian” and “avian” traits, Archaeopteryx fit the bill perfectly. Today, our understanding of how birds evolved has gotten a lot more complicated, but the little creature that so excited Darwin remains an important piece of the puzzle.

4. A Swiss Power-Glider Was Named “The Ruppert Archaeopteryx” in 2001.

For your aeronautical pleasure, we humbly present this demo reel, courtesy of the Ruppert Composite YouTube channel. Enjoy:

5. Archaeopteryx Grew Up Like A Kiwi (No, Not The Fruit).

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Who says all dinosaurs are extinct? Birds (aka “avian dinosaurs”) are still at large and can tell us a lot about their prehistoric brethren. A 2009 study found that, after scrutinizing some tell-tale bone tissue, Archaeopteryx hatchlings had a much slower growth rate than today’s chickens and ducks. Instead, they were more comparable to modern kiwi birds, which can take more than five years to reach maturity. 

6. Archaeopteryx Rocked Some Modern-Looking Plumage.

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Traces of melanosomes, organelles which help dictate an organism’s coloration, have been found in a number of fossilized dino feathers. With the help of a special technique designed to detect these structures, scientists have found that Archaeopteryx had lightly-colored wing feathers with dark tips, a common pattern among present day birds. Not bad for a beastie that disappeared 150 million years ago! 

7. Several Predatory Dinos—Including Archaeopteryx—Even Had Bird-Like Brains.

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Calling someone “bird-brained” ought to be a compliment. Our winged friends use an awful lot of brainpower. To accommodate the mental demands of flying, their thinking organs are equipped with expanded sound and visual processing centers. A recent survey of dinosaur skulls revealed that Archaeopteryx and many of its long-gone cousins had similar (albeit, less fine-tuned) brain cavity proportions. 

8. One Scientist Wanted to Re-Name Archaeopteryx After the Mythical Griffin.

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Archaeopteryx means “ancient wing," which paleontologist Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer considered a fitting name when he coined it in 1861. But not everybody was happy about his choice. “Darwin and his adherents,” wrote noted anti-evolutionist Johann Andreas Wagner, “will probably use the new discovery as … justification of their strange views upon the transition of animals.” Feeling that Archaeopteryx sounded too Darwinian, Wagner unsuccessfully proposed rechristening the fowl-like critter “Griphosaurus problematicus” (“the problematic Griffin lizard”). 

9. Could Archaeopteryx Fly? The Jury’s Still Out.

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Did Archaeopteryx live in trees or at ground level? And if flying wasn’t an option, did it glide? These debates rage on. In 2010, paleontologists Robert Nudds and Gareth Dyke claimed that Archaeopteryx’s weak feather shafts (those pen-like structures that give feathers their shape) would have made powered flight impossible. However, some of the pair’s critics later cried foul, arguing that they’d overestimated the creature’s weight and, thus, distorted the research. We may never know if Archaeopteryx took to the ancient skies, but getting answers is usually a matter of asking the right questions.

10. One 1897 Stage Play Features A Woman Giving Birth to an Archaeopteryx.

In one version of Ubu Cocu (“Ubu Cuckolded”)—a nonsensical avant-garde comedy written by French symbolist Alfred Jarry—the wife of our protagonist infuriates her spouse by birthing an Archaeopteryx offstage. The 2009 film Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs also includes a fleeting Archaeopteryx cameo.

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April 25, 2014 - 5:00pm
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