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Was Archaeopteryx Really the First Bird?

Paleontologists have found the most well-preserved specimen of the species ever unearthed. But it's not the earliest bird to catch a worm.
The Berlin specimen. Image: H. Raab.

Few fossils have inspired more widespread fascination than the iconic Berlin specimen of the transitional species Archaeopteryx (pictured above). If you are familiar with this animal—which is sometimes called the “Urvogel,” or Original Bird—then this specimen is probably the first image that comes to mind.

A German farmer named Jakob Niemeyer discovered the exquisite fossil in either 1874 or 1875, but the poor guy had no idea how much it was really worth, and so quickly exchanged it for a cow. When it finally found a home at the Humboldt Museum, it became famous as the most intact specimen of the controversial animal ever to be excavated. That is, it was until this week.

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On Wednesday, paleontologists based out of the Ludwig Maximilian University published their analysis of a new Archaeopteryx specimen, found in Bavaria. It’s only the 11th fossil of the species ever excavated, and it’s by far the most well-preserved of the bunch.

Not only did the proto-bird’s wing and tail feathers survive their 150 million year dormancy, so did all of the animal’s pennaceous feathers. These feathers evolved as plumage, and covered the body, legs, and head of the Archaeopteryx.

“The new specimen shows that the entire body was covered in pennaceous feathers, and that the hindlimbs had long, symmetrical feathers along the tibiotarsus but short feathers on the tarsometatarsus,” said the LMU team in their study, published in Nature on Wednesday.

But the animal’s extensive plumage wasn’t the only big find. According to the study, the animal’s wing structure also shed light on longstanding debates about Archaeopteryx’s evolution.

“An analysis of the phylogenetic distribution of pennaceous feathers on the tail, hindlimb and arms […] strongly indicates that these structures evolved in a functional context other than flight, most probably in relation to display,” said the authors.

“Pennaceous feathers thus represented an exaptation and were later, in several lineages and following different patterns, recruited for aerodynamic functions," they continued. "This indicates that the origin of flight in avialans was more complex than previously thought and might have involved several convergent achievements of aerial abilities.”

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So while this new fossil strongly suggests that Archaeopteryx could definitely fly, it didn’t evolve feathers for that reason. But the study also emphasizes another important point: this animal was far from the only proto-bird experimenting with flight in the late Jurassic. Though the authors did refer to the species as the Urvogel, it is not the original bird. It is one of many lineages surviving in the shadow of the dinosaurian megafauna.

For example, the middle Jurassic maniraptor Pedopenna predates Archaeopteryx by millions of years, but it has the same birdlike features, and could likely fly. The Anchiornis genus of dinosaurs lived at the same time as Archaeopteryx, and left behind a specimen so immaculate that it became the first dinosaur ever to have its coloration reconstructed.

Archaeopteryx has become the public ambassador for all of these diverse species, largely thanks to the sheer cultural impact of the Berlin specimen (as well as the London specimen and the Maxberg specimen, the latter of which mysteriously vanished in 1991).

But the animal actually represents a full bloom of early birds coming of age in the late Jurassic. They survived not only the enormous dinosaurs on the ground but the pterosaurs, a group of ferocious flyers that had dominated the skies since the late Triassic.

Reducing all these species to one “Urvogel” diminishes the incredible birth of a new biological clade, one that outlived its competitors and still rules the skies to this day. Not every bird has the Archaeopteryx in its ancestral line, but every bird owes its life to the flowering of diverse species represented by the “Original Bird.”