Dinosaur-Era Bird Could Fly, Brain Study Says

John Pickrell in England
for National Geographic News
August 4, 2004

The earliest known bird was discovered in a Bavarian quarry in 1861. Ever since, scientists have disagreed as to whether Archaeopteryx was fully capable of flight.

Exquisitely preserved fossils reveal that the winged, feathered animal had numerous modern birdlike features, but much of its primitive reptilian skeleton betrays a close kinship to meat-eating dinosaurs.

Now a study into the shape of Archaeopteryx's brain says that the animal already possessed many of the prerequisites for flight, such as great vision and a good sense of balance—traits all birds share today.

The analysis, which will be detailed tomorrow in the science journal Nature, provides some of the best evidence yet that Archaeopteryx spent much of its time on the wing.

"If you fly, you need a very sophisticated coordination-and-control command center," said study co-author Angela Milner of London's Natural History Museum. "We can now show that the brain and sensory systems of Archaeopteryx were fully equipped for flight."

Dinosaur? Bird? Both?

Archaeopteryx was discovered shortly after the publication of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). In the book, Darwin described his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Considered a bird, 147-million-year-old Archaeopteryx nevertheless seems to be a halfway house between birds and dinosaurs. Since Victorian times, it has been "taken as one of the icons of evolution in action," Milner said.

Like a bird, Archaeopteryx had feathered wings. But it also had a cumbersome bony tail and lacked the large breastbone (and therefore the wing-powering mass of muscle on its chest) that are characteristic avian traits, Milner said.

Some experts have argued that the animal used its wings to hop and scrabble about in trees rather than for powered flight.

However, "the majority of scientists now accept that it could get airborne," said fossil-anatomy expert Larry Witmer of Ohio University's College of Osteopathic Medicine. Witmer is the author of an accompanying commentary that will also be published in tomorrow's Nature.

Continued on Next Page >>


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