The winged Archeopteryx is one of the most famous dinosaurs known to science, yet the arguments are about its place in the evolutionary pedigree. The reported discovery of a completely new species of Archeopteryx with distinctly bird-like characteristics suggests that their relationship to modern birds is more meaningful than we could imagine. Critics, however, say it is premature to assign the fossil specimen to a new species.
It is called Archeopteryx albersdoerferi – a Jurassic dinosaur less reptile-like and bird-like than any other species Archeopteryx according to a new research published today in Historical Biology. If confirmed, it would only be the third species of Archeopteryx that was identified among the 1
This particular fossil was discovered in 2009 (it is referred to as number eight), but a new scan technique was used for the analysis, so it is the classic case of an old fossil being with new eyes. It should come as no surprise that the authors of the new study should declare the product a separate species.
Nearly every new fossil of Archeopteryx was first declared as a new species, before it was finally ever returned to either of the two known species, either Archeopteryx lithographica or Archeopteryx siemensii after further examination. The same could happen Archeopteryx albersdoerferi but only time will tell.
Archeopteryx is one of the most fascinating dinosaurs in paleontological history. This Jurassic dinosaur, discovered in the 1860s, was celebrated as a striking demonstration of evolution in action. Not quite a lizard and not quite a bird, it almost seemed literally to show that lizards develop into birds. Archeopteryx was therefore branded a "colloquial" species – a so-called missing link between extinct dinosaurs and modern birds.
Over the years, however, paleontologists have struggled to place Archeopteryx in the pedigree leading to modern birds. The discovery of other birdlike creatures of the dinosaur era with sizes and features more in line with the appearance of modern birds has led some scientists to conclude that Archeopteryx was an evolutionary impasse and modern birds have another common ancestor.
Archeopteryx was termed a "convergent bird-like non-avialanic theropod," meaning a non-feathered bird that received bird-like properties through the processes of convergent evolution.
That's what makes this new analysis so potentially important. The lead author of the new study, Martin Kundrát from Pavol Jozef Šafárik University in Slovakia, said the specimen is more like modern birds than any other Archeopteryx specimen ever discovered. The new paper thus approaches Archeopteryx one or two steps closer to the pedigree leading to modern birds.
This Archeopteryx fossil was bred from the Mörnsheim Formation in Germany and, according to the study, is the youngest of all known Archeopteryx specimens by about 500,000 years. All Archeopteryx fossils date back to the late Jurassic about 150 million years ago, when the first bird-like dinosaurs appeared.
It strongly resembles an older species known as A. lithographica the researchers claim, but the age of the new fossil, in conjunction with its unique physical properties, distinguishes it as a distinct species of archeopteryx .
To study the specimen, Kundrát's team used a scanning technique called synchrotron microtomography, which allows scientists to visualize specimens in three dimensions and observe internal features without having to cut them open.
"Through the digital analysis of the fossil, we found that this specimen was different from all others." John Nudds, a co-author of the study and a paleontologist at Manchester University, said in a statement. "It had skeletal adjustments that would have resulted in a much more efficient flight." In short, we have discovered what A. lithographica has developed into a more advanced, better adapted to fly bird a new breed of Archeopteryx . "
The researchers documented various features of the skeleton, such as the fusion of its skull bones, unique wing elements and thoracic girdle (thorax) and a more robust arrangement of the hand bones. Importantly, none of these features are found in the older Archeopteryx specimens, which are more reptile-like in their characteristics, the researchers noted.
"This is the first time that numerous bones and teeth of Archeopteryx have been considered in all aspects including the exposure of their internal structure," said Kundrát. "The use of synchrotron microtomography was the only way to study the specimen is heavily compressed with many fragmented bones that are partially or completely concealed in limestone."
Winged Archeopteryx Dino could fly, but scientists just do not know how
Archeopteryx is one of the most fascinating dinosaurs in science due to its distinct birdlike characteristics. Since their discovery 150 years ago, paleontologists have wondered if the late Jurassic dinosaur could actually fly.
The researchers claim their new study offers "the first synchrotron microtomographic examination of the genus [Archaeopteryx]." This is categorically wrong. A research team from the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, and the Palacký University in the Czech Republic used a synchotron to study the flight potential of Archeopteryx . That Kundrát and Nudds could not explain this closely related research, published in Nature Communications, is a blatant omission.
Dennis Voeten, the lead author of the Nature Communications paper, said the new study "provides a welcome contribution to our understanding of the variability Archeopteryx has within the genus," but he does not believe the fossil represents a new species.
"Almost all of the specimens were eventually added to their own species, and later revisions were unable to separate these animals into a limited number of well-defined 'natural' species," said Voeten Gizmodo.
The rate of growth and physical variability of Archeopteryx "remains difficult to reconstruct," he said, and some key features, such as bone size and subtle physical features, could be the result of individual variation or even deformations his bones after the beast died rather than the signs of a separate species.
"Nevertheless, this new paper provides a strong second example of the value of synchrotron tomography to reliably visualize the internal structures of priceless and fragile fossils," he said. "Future assessments of the beautiful fossils of Archeopteryx will unequivocally show which morphological features are related to their true specific diversity and which stem from other factors in the game."
Lastly, the top image used in this post – a reconstruction by the artist of A. Albersdoerferi – takes some serious liberties. Although Archeopteryx has physical properties consistent with flying, it has not yet been proven that it was a free flight. As I wrote earlier this year, "Scientists do not know if this animal has used its wings for passive gliding or active, active flight."
Another possibility is that Archeopteryx was a bottom-living animal that I did not fly at all, using his wings for something else, like catching predators, jumping or sexual depictions. "
Recent work by Voeten and Kundrát suggests that Archeopteryx is a flying creature is, but his exact flight remains a mystery.