Earliest Bird Had Feet Like Dinosaur, Fossil Shows

Nicholas Bakalar
for National Geographic News
December 1, 2005

A 150-million-year-old fossil of Archaeopteryx, long considered the oldest bird, may put to rest any scientific doubt that dinosaurs—specifically the group of two-legged meat-eaters known as theropods—gave rise to modern birds.

Until recently, the crow-size specimen was housed in a private collection. It is now owned by the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis.

The fossil is the ninth example of Archaeopteryx known to science. (A tenth specimen of a winged dinosaur from a closely related genus also exists.) All ten fossils were found in a limestone deposit near Solnhofen, Germany.

The latest specimen is among the best preserved. It is a slightly broken skeleton in a single slab of pure limestone, showing clear wing- and tail-feather impressions.

The skull is the only Archaeopteryx specimen that reveals a bird's-eye view of the species' upper head surface.

Convincing Case

"The skull of the new specimen is the best preserved one of an archaeopterygid," said Gerald Mayr, a lead study author and prehistoric bird expert at the Senckenberg Institute for Research in Frankfurt, Germany.

"[It] presents important new details of the skull morphology [shape and function] of the earliest known bird," he said, "showing also that the skull of Archaeopteryx is much more similar to that of nonavian theropod dinosaurs than previously thought."

Joel Cracraft, curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History and adjunct professor at Columbia University in New York, believes the paper presents a very convincing case.

"This pretty much puts the final nail in the coffin for all those people resisting the idea that birds are related to theropod dinosaurs," he said. Cracraft was not involved in the study.

Of Feet and Toes

The animal's feet, both of them perfectly preserved, attracted the researchers' particular attention.

Continued on Next Page >>


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