Archaeopteryx, one of the first birds - an intermediate between dinosaurs and birds?

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Dinosaur Jungle   >   Other Prehistoric Animals   >   Archaeopteryx



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Scientific Classification
  Kingdom Animalia
  Phylum Chordata
  Class Aves
  Order Archaeopterygiformes
  Family Archaeopterygidae
  Genus Archaeopteryx
Archaeopteryx is the earliest and most primitive bird currently definitely known (Protoavis has been claimed as an earlier bird, however many scientists dispute this). The name "Archaeopteryx" (which, as is often the case, is derived from Ancient Greek) means "ancient wing", although it is sometimes also known by the German name of "Urvogel" which means "first bird".

Archaeopteryx lived in the Jurassic period between approximately 150 million and 145 million years ago. fossils of the animal have been found in what is today southern Germany, but was at the time an archipelago of islands in a warm tropical sea.

Many scientists believe that Archaeopteryx is a transitional fossil between birds and dinosaurs, and its discovery has contributed greatly to the debate about evolution. The first complete specimen of Archaeopteryx was discovered in 1861, just two years after Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection", and seemed to be a spectacular confirmation of his ideas. In particular, the idea that birds were descended from Theropod dinosaurs, was proposed by T. H. Huxley in 1868.

Archaeopteryx fossil
Archaeopteryx seems to have grown to a maximum of about 1 foot 8 inches (50 centimeters) in length, about the size of a medium-sized modern bird. It seems to have definitely had feathers (see below) as well as some other avian features (including a wishbone and a partially reversed first toe), a larger brain than most dinosaurs (again more like birds), but Archaeopteryx also retained several features similar to Theropod dinosaurs. Dinosaur-like features included its small teeth and a long bony tail.

To date, less than a dozen specimens of Archaeopteryx have been found, and many of these fossils appear to include evidence of feathers. Noteably, Archaeopteryx has flight feathers, so it is thought likely that these may have evolved from simpler feathers in its as yet undiscovered ancestors. Over the years, there have been a number of controversies and debates relating to Archaeopteryx, including whether it should be classified as a bird at all, and how it relates to modern birds (currently, many scientists believe that Archaeopteryx is a close relative of the ancestor of modern birds, rather than the direct ancestor).

One of the key points of scientific interest in Archaeopteryx is what it can teach us about the evolution of flying in birds. One theory is that flight evolved from fast-running after insects and other small prey such as small lizards (an idea first proposed by Samuel Wendell Williston). The main alternative theory is that flight began by jumping or gliding down from trees (this theory was first proposed by Othniel C. Marsh). Although it seems pretty clear that Archaeopteryx could fly, it is not entirely clear which of these two theories it provides evidence for - Archaeopteryx does not seem particularly well-suited for either running or for perching in trees. We do know however that there were few in the local environment at the Archaeopteryx was alive, although it is of course possible that Archaeopteryx simply used shrubs, cliffs, and whatever trees were available.

Archaeopteryx Timeline:

Archaeopteryx was an early bird with many dinosaur-like features that lived between 150 and 145 million years ago

Archaeopteryx was an early bird with many dinosaur-like features that lived between 150 and 145 million years ago

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