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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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Courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Canada
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The Exquisitely Preserved ‘Mona Lisa of Dinosaurs’ Has Been Named
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Courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Canada

Experts say the spectacularly well-preserved nodosaur now on display at Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum (RTM) represents a new species—a hulking, armored beast that was not too proud to hide when predators were on the prowl. The research team described this "dinosaur equivalent of a tank" in the most recent issue of the journal Current Biology.

The nodosaur's massive remains were uncovered by miners in Alberta in 2011 in what was a seabed about 110 million years ago, when the creature died. The enormous block of stone and fossil was transferred to the museum, where technician Mark Mitchell set about freeing the specimen from its final resting place.

A researcher with a small pick prepares a dinosaur specimen.

The task took Mitchell more than five years and 7000 hours. Every one of them was worth it: The results are breathtaking.

Closeup of a nodosaur fossil.

"This nodosaur is truly remarkable in that it is completely covered in preserved scaly skin, yet is also preserved in three dimensions, retaining the original shape of the animal. The result is that the animal looks almost the same today as it did back in the Early Cretaceous," museum scientist Caleb Brown said in a statement. "If you just squint your eyes a bit, you could almost believe it was sleeping. ... It will go down in science history as one of the most beautiful and best preserved dinosaur specimens—the Mona Lisa of dinosaurs."

While Mitchell chipped away at the stone tomb, Brown and his colleagues began trying to identify the animal inside. They knew it was a member of the stocky, heavily armored nodosaur family, but they couldn't figure out which one.

Eventually they realized why—it's not a species or genus anyone has ever seen before. Even so, the incredible quality of the museum's specimen made it possible for them to reconstruct what it might have looked like in life.

Chemical analysis of the nodosaur's scales and horn sheaths indicated the presence of a reddish-gold pigment called pheomelanin. In people, pheomelanin is what gives redheads their coppery locks and lends our lips and nipples their pinkish color. In nodosaurs, it probably turned them orange.

Some parts of them, at least. The researchers realized that their specimen, a herbivore, most likely had a pale belly, like a squirrel, and darker coloration on its back. This color patterning is called countershading. It's used to help animals blend into their surroundings and hide from predators.

That's right: Apparently the dinosaur's massive punk spikes and tough hide were not enough to keep it safe. It needed camouflage, too.

"Strong predation on a massive, heavily armored dinosaur illustrates just how dangerous the dinosaur predators of the Cretaceous must have been," Brown said.

The team named their new species Borealopelta markmitchelli. The genus name is a combination of "borealis" (Latin for "northern") and "pelta" (Greek for "shield'"). The species name is a tribute to Mitchell, the scientists write, for his "patient and skilled" revealing of their pride and joy.

All images courtesy of the Royal Tyrell Museum.

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What 6 Dinosaurs from Jurassic Park Really Looked Like
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Universal Pictures

by Alex Carter

In the 24 years that have passed since the original Jurassic Park hit theaters, what we know about dinosaurs has changed—a lot. Here's some of the new research that may change how you imagine these ancient animals, along with illustrations of what the animals may have looked like when they actually roamed the Earth.

1. VELOCIRAPTOR

Movie:

Velociraptors in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Velociraptor.
Matt Martyniuk, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY SA-3.0

A far cry from the large and vicious hunters of the Jurassic Park movies, velociraptors were in fact small and covered in feathers. More like vicious turkeys, if you will. The dinosaur in the movies was based on the Deinonychus, a much larger species whose name, appropriately, means “terrible claw.” (Even Deinonychus wasn't quite as big as the raptors portrayed in the movie.) That said, other large raptors have since been discovered, including the entire genus Utahraptor. (Its discoverers originally considered naming the type species Utahraptor spielbergi in hopes that the director would finance their research, but the name-for-funds deal never went through, so it was ultimately called Utahraptor ostrommaysorum.)

2. TYRANNOSAURUS REX

Movie:

A T. Rex in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A feathered version of a T. Rex.
A feathered version of a T. Rex.

Large. Imposing. Fluffy? Apparently, the T. rex looked much, much stranger than the beast brought to life on the silver screen. Its face might have been covered with patches of armored skin and large scales, its eyes were placed much farther forward than other dinosaurs, and it carried itself rather horizontally, not upright, as most people still imagine it. It's thought from discoveries in close relatives that T. rex was covered in some feathers for a part of its life (especially as a juvenile, as seen in The Lost World), although the details remain hotly debated. Also debated are what it used its arms for: Hypotheses have ranged from a role in reproduction to lifting itself up (which is increasingly considered unlikely) to nothing at all.

3. COMPSOGNATHUS

Movie:

A Compsognathus in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A feathered version of a Compsognathus.
A feathered version of a Compsognathus.

This dinosaur was actually bigger in real life, although not by much. The smaller version depicted in the movies was based on what is now believed to be a young (and therefore small) Compsognathus. While many dinosaurs of its type were covered in feathers, there has been a notable lack of evidence about whether compies, as they're known, had feathers or scales. Most artists tend to draw simple proto-feathers, though; the result is an animal that looks more furry than feathery—and remarkably like a stretched rat.

4. TRICERATOPS

Movie:

A Triceratops in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

These creatures are generally portrayed as leathery and pointy—a bit like a rhinoceros designed by committee. The reality is somewhat stranger: They actually resembled porcupines. Some paleontologists believe that several nipple-shaped protrusions in their skin suggest where bristles would have been. In other areas, their skin was likely scaled rather than leathery. Their horns are another mystery. A 2009 study indicated that they were used largely for combat with other Triceratops, but they probably had a role in courtship as well.

5. BRACHIOSAURUS

Movie:

A Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Brachiosaurus.

In Jurassic Park, the Brachiosaurus is the first dinosaur seen after everyone arrives on the island, memorably rearing up to get at some particularly delicious leafage. But that behavior is now considered unlikely. The book Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs attempted to calculate if Brachiosaurs were able to rear on their hind legs and concluded, “Brachiosaurus would have expended considerably more energy [than a Diplodocus], could not have attained a stable upright pose, and would have risked serious injury to its forefeet when descending too rapidly.” Dr. Heinrich Mallison noted that it “was probably unlikely to use a bipedal … posture regularly and for an extended period of time. Although this dinosaur certainly could have reared up, for example during mating, this was probably a rare and short-lived event.”

6. SPINOSAURUS

Movie:

A Spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Spinosaurus.

Joschua Knüppe, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

The Spinosaurus was discovered only a few years after the Tyrannosaurus, but it never attracted fans in quite the same way. The fossils were destroyed in World War II during an Allied bombing raid on Munich, and the dinosaur became largely forgotten. However, Jurassic Park III resurrected the dinosaur's fame with a showdown that saw the Spinosaurus kill a Tyrannosaurus. Many fans cried foul, and the size of the Spinosaurus was indeed a mistake … in reality, it was much bigger.

It would have been up to three times heavier and 20 feet longer; a creature on the higher end of that range would have been bigger than even Jurassic World's (invented) I. rex. But could Spinosaurus have taken on a T. rex and lived? Almost certainly not. While physically bigger and armed with a bigger jaw, it was much less powerful, as most paleontologists now believe Spinosaurus used its long jaws for fishing. It actually lived mostly in the water.

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