Why ‘Phantom’ Archaeopteryx discovery has scientists in a flap
Since its discovery 150 years ago, scientists have heralded Archaeopteryx as the ‘missing link’ in the evolution of dinosaurs to modern birds. A transitional fossil, the species was commonly referred to as Urvogel – meaning “first bird”.
But as is so often the case, once something reaches such lofty heights, it’s human nature to want to knock it from its perch. And so it is that over the last few decades, debate has been rife within the scientific community over whether Archaeopteryx really was the first bird, or simply a smart dinosaur in a fancy feathered jacket.
Now new research, conducted in part by scientists at The University of Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, on a fossil known as ‘The Phantom’ could help end the debate and determine once and for all whether Archaeopteryx is that illusive missing link.
The publication of On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859 caused a sensation. Although scientists had been theorising over human evolution for some time, Darwin’s assertion that species evolved from one or more common ancestors through natural selection, by retaining certain attributes and losing others – ‘the survival of the fittest’ – was a game-changer. For one, it suggested that humans too evolved from an animal ancestor, rather than being a divine creation.
Just a few years after the work’s publication, a fossil was discovered that seemed to support the theory. The fossilised feather looked just like a modern plume – but it was millions of years old.
Not long after, a skeleton was unearthed that appeared to have as much in common with the first dinosaur fossils (discovered less than 30 years earlier) as it did with modern birds. As a result, it seemed to prove Darwin’s theories by providing a clear link between the time of the dinosaurs and the creatures inhabiting the Earth today.
For a long time, Archaeopteryx was seen as the earliest example of birdlife, but as thinking changed and scientists began to regard present-day birds, rather than lizards, as the descendants of dinosaurs, the status of Archaeopteryx also changed. Rather than an early bird, it was regarded as the crucial common ancestor shared by both birds and dinosaurs.
All this changed after a far more recent discovery. In the 1990s, fossils of feathered dinosaurs were unearthed in China. These dinosaurs would certainly have been unable to fly, but they did have feathers.
This led some scientists to question the status given to Archaeopteryx. Perhaps it too was simply a feathered dinosaur?
Is it a bird… is it a dinosaur?
Enter the scientists from The University of Manchester, Slovakia’s University of Pavol Jozef Šafárik and Sweden’s Uppsala University. The team focused on one of just 11 surviving Archaeopteryx fossils, known as the Daiting Specimen after the area in Germany where it was discovered.
The fossil is also referred to as ‘The Phantom’, because – with the exception of a quick glimpse – it was kept away from the inquisitive eyes of the scientific community until less than a decade ago, when its current owner purchased it and loaned it to the Bavarian State Collection of Paleontology and Geology in Munich. And the reason this specimen stands out from the crowd is that it is significantly younger than the other known Archaeopteryx fossils.
Through 3D X-ray analyses (Synchrotron microtomography), the team looked for signs that the animal would have been able to fly. Previous studies have queried how competent a flyer Archaeopteryx would be, due to a pectoral girdle that would prevent it from flapping in the same way as modern birds. Some scientists argue that instead of flapping to take flight, the creature would climb trees or cliffs and then glide down, or that it would fly in a similar way to a pheasant – in very short bursts to escape predators.
However, in their new research, published in Taylor & Francis Online, the cross-university team has revealed that the fossil has several traits that conclusively suggest it is a close ancestor of modern birds, and not simply a dinosaur in disguise.
Lead author Martin Kundrát from the University of Pavol Jozef Šafárik explains: “[This] is one of the most important specimens of Archaeopteryx because it is around 400,000 years younger than any of the others found so far.” To put that into perspective, the age difference between this fossil and the other older specimens is roughly double that of human existance. A LOT can change in that time!
Kundrát continues that the specimen had hollow air-filled bones, an increased area on its wishbone for the attachment of flight muscles and a reinforced configuration of bones in the wrist and hand. In addition, the specimen had fewer teeth than the older examples, and the bones in its skull were fused.
So apparent are the differences between the Daiting Specimen and its predecessors, the team has declared it a new species. They have named it Archaeopteryx albersdoerferi after its owner Raimund Albersdörfer.
“Our analysis has shown that Archaeopteryx albersdoerferi shares more features in common with modern birds than their dinosaurian ancestors,” reveals Professor Per Ahlberg of Uppsala University in Sweden. Proof that Archaeopteryx was more than just a feathered dinosaur.
Dr John Nudds, Senior Lecturer in Palaeontology at The University of Manchester, adds: “Whenever a missing link is discovered, this merely creates two further missing links – what came before, and what came after! What came before was discovered in 1996 with the feathered dinosaurs in China. Our new species is what came after. It 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,” he concludes.
You can read about another of our avian discoveries here.
Words – Hayley Cox
Images – The University of Manchester