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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."

Scott Hartman, Livescience

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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Denver Museum of Nature & Science
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Construction Workers in Colorado Discover 66-Million-Year-Old Triceratops Skeleton
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Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Construction projects have yielded some pretty amazing ancient finds: ancient ports, Stone Age homes, forgotten cemeteries, burial grounds, and even the bones of King Richard III. Now, The Denver Post reports that workers in Thornton, Colorado, just north of Denver, recently discovered a 66-million-year-old adult triceratops skull, along with other bones, while breaking ground for the city's new public safety facility. It's an incredibly rare find as most of the fossils found in the region are about 12,000 years old.

Instead of digging on—which may have destroyed the skeleton—the workers contacted experts to take a closer look. Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, was called to the scene to examine the bones.

"This is what we as curators dream about—getting a call about a possible fossil and confirming it's not just a dinosaur fossil, but a record-breaking one!" Sertich said in a statement.

Museum staff, construction staff, and museum volunteers work to excavate the Thornton triceratops skeleton on August 30, 2017.
Museum staff, construction staff, and museum volunteers work to excavate the skeleton on August 30, 2017.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

So far, scientists and volunteer diggers have unearthed the skull, two horns, a portion of the dinosaur's frill, shoulder bones, the beak at the front of the lower jaw, and ribs and vertebrae. The skeleton appears to be separated, indicating that the dinosaur may have died and lain on the ground for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, according to The Washington Post. As it decayed, its bones and flesh fell apart, and other dinosaurs, like T. rex, may have even taken a nibble at the corpse.

Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, speaks with a construction worker while leading the excavation in Thornton, Colorado of a newly discovered triceratops skeleton.
Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, speaks with a construction worker while leading the excavation in Thornton, Colorado of a newly discovered triceratops skeleton.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Experts say the triceratops skeleton could be the most complete Cretaceous dinosaur ever discovered in the Front Range region, and one of the oldest fossils. They've also noted that the newly discovered dino fits a larger pattern: When found in the Denver area, triceratops are typically half the size of similar ones that once lived in the Dakotas and Montana.

A closeup of the triceratops fossil as it's unearthed in Thornton, Colorado.
A closeup of the triceratops fossil as it's unearthed.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

"We don't really know why," Sertich said in a Facebook Live broadcast. "Even though we have hundreds of triceratops from the American West, we only have three good skulls. And this might be one of the best skeletons to tell us why Denver triceratops are smaller than all of their cousins everywhere else."

[h/t The Denver Post]

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© Zachary James Johnston, The Field Museum
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
SUE the T. Rex Is Getting a Makeover
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© Zachary James Johnston, The Field Museum

Our lives are constantly changing—even those of us who are already dead. The beloved fossilized T. rex skeleton known as SUE will soon be treated to a makeover and new digs at The Field Museum in Chicago.

SUE’s move is motivated by more than just luxury; the museum needs to clear out its great hall to make room for the largest dinosaur ever discovered. A private donor has bestowed the museum with a full-size cast of the Argentinean titanosaur Patagotitan mayorum.

Illustration of a titanosaur cast in a great hall.
The Field Museum

The touchable 122-foot-long marvel will stretch across Stanley Field Hall and upward into the second story. SUE will be disassembled in 2018 and eventually relocated to a fancy new suite in another hall along with other fossil specimens.

Illustration comparing the size of a titanosaur, a human, and a T. rex.
The Field Museum

“At 40.5 feet long, she’s the world’s biggest T. rex, but in that giant hall, people sometimes remark that she’s smaller than they expected,” senior exhibitions project manager Hilary Hansen said in a statement.

“By putting her in her own gallery in our Evolving Planet exhibition, she’ll be put into the proper context of her fellow dinosaurs, and she’ll dominate the room.”

(SUE’s sex is unknown, but many museum staffers take a cue from the fossil’s ladylike name and use female pronouns.)

With the new setup comes a whole new look. The SUE we see today is incomplete; when the skeleton was assembled in 2000, dinosaur curators omitted one group of bones, unsure where to put them. They’ve since figured it out. The bones are gastralia, which cage the stomach area like a lower set of ribs.

Dinosaur gastralia arrayed  in a bed of sand.
© Zachary James Johnston, The Field Museum

T. rex had a bulging belly,” associate curator of dinosaurs Pete Makovicky said in the statement. “It wasn’t sleek and gazelle-like the way you might think.”

Over the last two decades since SUE’s assembly we’ve learned a lot about the way SUE and family looked and moved. Makovicky and his colleagues also plan to tinker with SUE’s posture so that upon the grand re-debut in 2019, “she’ll be walking rather than skulking.”

Or strutting, more accurately. The gloating dinosaur’s Twitter bio now reads “Private Suite Haver.”

Never one to be left out of the conversation, SUE issued a public comment, writing, “For years now, I've been pitching this to the Museum. A room with a better defensible position against velociraptor attacks and reduced exposure to possible meteorite collisions. Finally, the mammals in charge have come to their senses."

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