In the nearly 160 years since its discovery, Archaeopteryx has become known as the “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds. This feathered beast of the Late Jurassic lived some 150 million years ago and occupied the territory that is now southern Germany.
Part of a genus of bird-like dinosaurs, Archaeopteryx represents the transition from feathered non-avian dinosaurs to modern birds. The name itself translates as “ancient wing,” suggesting that Archaeopteryx is the oldest creature to sport bird-like characteristics.
Only 12 Archaeopteryx specimens exist in the fossil record — all of them unearthed from a few quarries near the Bavarian town of Solnhofen in southern Germany, notes the National Museum Wales.
Almost all of these fossils were retrieved from a limestone outcrop known as the Solnhofen Formation — with the exception of one specimen. Dubbed the “Daiting specimen,” or “specimen number eight,” this fossil was dug up from a younger geological deposit called the Mörnsheim Formation and actually postdates the other fossils by roughly half a million years.
This particular specimen is intriguing not only due to its younger age but also because it possesses very distinct features from the rest of the Archaeopteryx fossils.
While the other skeletons — generally thought to belong to one species, Archaeopteryx lithographica — have more in common with dinosaurs than with flying birds, this eighth specimen is actually closer to modern birds in evolutionary terms, reports Science Daily.
In fact, the “Daiting specimen” is so different from all the others that paleontologists are now describing it as a completely new species of Archaeopteryx.
According to a study published this week in the journal Historical Biology, the fossil exhibits a series of “skeletal innovations” that suggest an evolution from the Solnhofen specimens.
“It possessed skeletal adaptations which would have resulted in much more efficient flight,” said study co-author Dr. John Nudds, a researcher at the University of Manchester in the U.K.
Among the different characteristics of the “Daiting specimen” the paper cites the “fusion and pneumatization of the cranial bones, well vascularized pectoral girdle and wing elements, and a reinforced configuration of carpals and metacarpals,” or hand bones.
The discovery was made after paleontologists re-examined the Archaeopteryx fossil with the help of a cutting-edge technique known as synchrotron microtomography, which enabled them to digitally dissect the skeleton and obtain a 3D X-ray view of its inner structure.
This is the first time that such a procedure was performed on an Archaeopteryx fossil — and “was the only way to study the specimen, as it is heavily compressed with many fragmented bones partly or completely hidden in limestone,” stated study lead author Dr. Martin Kundrát, who is affiliated with the University of Pavol Jozef Šafárik in Slovakia and the Evolutionary Biology Center at Uppsala University in Sweden
The new species was given the name Archaeopteryx albersdoerferi.
“In a nutshell we have discovered what Archaeopteryx lithographica evolved into — i.e. a more advanced bird, better adapted to flying — and we have described this as a new species of Archaeopteryx,” explained Nudds.
As he pointed out, the discovery “confirms Archaeopteryx as the first bird — and not just one of a number of feathered theropod dinosaurs, which some authors have suggested recently. ”
“You could say that it puts ‘Archaeopteryx’ back on its perch as the first bird!”