March 19, 2002
The Evolution of Archaeopteryx
First Bird Considered to be 150 Million Years Old
In 1861, paleontologists discovered
the first recorded fossil of Archaeopteryx Lithographica, named by geologist
Sir Richard Owen, in the Solnhofen Limestone deposits in
southern Germany. Archaeopteryx is considered by many to be the first
bird, being about 150 million years old. It was the first reptilian
fossil found with clear evidence of feathers, a trait long considered
the key distinction between birds and non-birds.
Scientists have argued, feathers are unique. They can only
evolve in birds. If you have feathers you are a bird, says
Clark. Now you have dinosaurs with feathers.
Scientists quickly recognized this member of the therapod family as
the potential missing link between birds and more primitive
reptiles. Like many dinosaurs, archaeopteryx had a bony tail, teeth,
and clawed fingers, and a hyperextendable claw on each foot. However,
this species also had several features similar to birds such as its
feathers, wings, wishbone, and reduced tail vertebrae. Many scientists
believe these feathers may have originally evolved for insulation and
later were co-opted for flight.
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