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Archaeopteryx: Definition, Facts & Characteristics

Instructor: Stephanie Gorski

Steph has a PhD in Entomology and teaches college biology and ecology.

In this lesson, we'll talk about what dinosaurs have in common with birds. We'll then introduce Archaeopteryx, which many people consider the missing link between dinosaurs and birds.

Dinosaurs and Birds

Have you ever eaten a dinosaur? If you've eaten a chicken or turkey, the answer is yes! Many of us think of dinosaurs as lizard-like, because of how they are often portrayed in picture books, but modern birds are actually the direct descendants of dinosaurs.

You might not think that, say, Tyrannosaurus rex looks much like a bird, but look a little bit closer. You know dinosaurs have scaly legs and lay eggs like birds. Coelurosauria, like T-rexes, lay eggs that are similar in structure to a bird's eggs. They also have large eyes and thin, hollow bones (like birds). Like birds, coelurosauria have three big toes that support their foot, and an extra tiny toe. Their pelvis bones are angled in a way similar to a bird's pelvis. Many bones in coelurosauria look just like their equivalents in birds - from the ankle bones to the fused vertebrae in their hips to the scapula (shoulder blade) to the clavicle (collarbone). Specifically, T-rex's clavicles were fused to form a wishbone, like the wishbone in modern birds.

Feathered Dinosaurs

You can imagine that most feathers don't fossilize very well. So that's why it wasn't until the 1990s that scientists realized that dinosaurs had feathers. Some scientists believe that feathers evolved from scales, while other scientists believe that feathers were a novel development all their own. What we do know is that the earliest feathers were simple, hollow filaments. As feathers evolved, they developed more and more complex branches, until they became pennaceous like feathers like we know today. It's now believed that the earliest feathered dinosaurs lived about 190 million years ago, at the dawn of the Jurassic era.

Archaeopteryx

Archaeopteryx lithographica, first found in a specimen from southern Germany, is a coelurosaurid. It's about 150 million years old, placing it in the late Jurassic era. Archaeopteryx is considered to be the first bird. But there are many things about Archaeopteryx that you would not recognize in a modern bird.

First and foremost, Archaeopteryx had teeth, rather than a beak. It also had a flat sternum (breastbone). Most modern birds have a keeled breastbone, which allows them to attach powerful flight muscles. Archaeopteryx also had little claws on the end of its wings that would allow it to grasp prey.

However, Archaeopteryx had wings, feathers, and a wishbone much like modern birds. It does look very much like a bird!

Archaeopteryx lithographica
Archaeopteryx lithographica

What does Archaeopteryx Look Like?

We know that Archaeopteryx had a shape similar to modern birds. You may also want to know what color it was.

Of course, colors don't preserve very easily in fossil records. So whatever color the dinosaurs were in the picture books or toys you enjoyed as a kid, were largely the figment of someone's imagination.

However, recently, scientists have suggested that Archaeopteryx was probably dark black in color. How could we possibly know that?

Using scanning electron microscopes, scientists have analyzed an Archaeopteryx feather found in a limestone deposit in 1861. They looked closely at tiny structures that were previously thought to be bacteria.

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