Ancient winged one, this late Jurassic period fossil was first discovered in southern Germany's Solnhofen limestone quarry. The limestone matrix's extraordinarily fine, almost glass-like qualities preserved these delicate fossils in unusually fine detail.
Discovered soon after the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Archaeopteryx became a metaphorical lightning rod for both sides of the evolutionary debate.
Only in recent years, with the discovery of feathered "nonavian theropod" (dinosaur) fossils in China has the debate resolved, or more properly shifted. Paleontologists now hold birds to be modern-day dinosaurs. In any case, it is with Archaeopteryx that the taxonomic shift between avian and nonavian theropods is generally held to occur, although some paleontologists think that Archaeopteryx was an evolutionary dead end and that early theropods like Deinonychus and Velociraptor were the true ancestors of birds.
A total of 8 specimens are known or have been reported. Of these, one was privately held and is now missing, and thus unavailable for study. Others are not fully recognized as Archaeopteryx lithographica and may be of related species.
The species was named by Hermann von Meyer in 18611, based on the discovery of a fossilized feather in the Solnhofen field. The first full Archaeopteryx to be described was found that same year. It was acquired by the British Natural History Museum and fully described by Sir Richard Owen in 1863. Despite being the "type specimen" for the species, it is not actually the first example to be found. That honour belongs to the 'Haarlem Specimen' (aka 'Teyler Specimen') found in 1855. The specimen was long misclassified as a type of Pterodactyl-- a mistake subsequently corrected.
The so-called Berlin Specimen (found in 1877) is the most clear and complete. This is the one most people would recognize from its pressed-fairy photos.
Archaeopteryx is viewed by some experts as a transitional fossil and classified by others as the earliest known bird. Like a bird, it had feathers, hollow bones and a furcula (wishbone). Unlike a bird, it had claws, head teeth, abdominal ribs and a bony tail. The neither-reptile-nor-fowl nature of the beast makes it both a strong argument for evolution and an irresistible target for those who would refute evolution.
Archaeopteryx's wingspan was about one and a half feet. It was about a foot long from beak to tail. For various physical reasons such as the lack of a large breastbone it probably could not fly2, though there is debate on this issue. It may have been able to glide for short distances, possibly after climbing into a tree.
Except for the feathers, the remains of Archaeopteryx are similar to those of Compsognathus. Several of the known specimens were originally misclassified as this species. Archaeopteryx's skeleton also looks very much like that of Deinonychus and the even larger Velociraptor.
In addition to the debates about classification and whether or not Archaeopteryx could fly, it has been contended that Archaeopteryx was a forgery, with the feathers added onto a reptile or Compsognathus skeleton. A detailed discussion of these allegations and a refutation can be found at www.talkorigins.org/faqs/archaeopteryx/forgery.html
Sources included EnchantedLearning.com, www.talkorigins.org
- Reported in Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Paläontologie (1861), 678-9.
- Whether it was fly is unknown.