THATNat: Bird or Dinosaur?

Meet Archaeopteryx, the most valuable fossil in the Natural History Museum! 

Archaeopteryx type specimen fossil in the Natural History Museum

Pronounced Ark-ee-op-ter-ix, this is believed to be the earliest bird ever discovered. This fossil was found in Germany in 1861, just two years after Darwin had published On the Origin of Species. This helped prove the value of his ideas. Never before had such a clear link between the animals of today and extinct creatures been discovered. It has teeth and claws like many dinosaurs yet is covered in feathers and seemed adapted to flight. Some people found its discovery so incomprehensible they thought it must be an angel!  

Paleoart of Archaeopteryx sat on a branch
What Archaeopteryx might have looked like.

This fossil is so well preserved it has been designated the ‘type specimen’ for the species. This means it is the best version we have in the world and all other possible Archaeopteryx finds are compared to this one. It seems the creature fell onto a muddy riverbank and was quickly covered up with another level of thick clay like mud, preserving it intact and flat.  

Bird Brained?

Recent studies have also managed to 3D map the inside of its skull. Bird brains are squeezed so tightly inside their skulls that it leaves an imprint of the shape of the brain on the inside of the bone over time. By reconstructing Archaeopteryx’s brain they could see it had a big enough brain to actually fly, not just glide or flap about. It had excellent eyes and co-ordination just like modern birds.  

Sinornithosaurus, a flightless feathered Chinese dinosaur
Sinornithosaurus, a flightless feathered Chinese dinosaur

Recent fossil discoveries in China have also shown many more dinosaurs with feathers. Not for flight but for display and for warmth. It could be that many more dinosaurs we know were covered in feathers, and looked more like giant chickens than the scary creatures we picture today! In February 2020 the Royal Mint released a series of 50p coins with british dinosaurs on them. Drawn by real scientist paleoartists, one depicts the Megalosaurus with a coat of feathers! 

2 Comments on “THATNat: Bird or Dinosaur?

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