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New Specimen of Archaeop Teryx Reveals Previously Unknown Features of the Plumage

June 30,2017


Paleontologists of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich are currently studying a new specimen of Archaeopteryx, which reveals previously unknown features of the plumage. The initial findings shed light on the original function of feathers and their recruitment for flight.

A century and a half after its discovery and a mere 150 million years or so since it took to the air, Archaeopteryx still has surprises in store: The eleventh specimen of the iconic "basal bird" so far discovered turns out to have the best preserved plumage of all, permitting detailed comparisons to be made with other feathered dinosaurs. The fossil is being subjected to a thorough examination by a team led by Dr. Oliver Rauhut, a paleontologist in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at LMU Munich, who is also affiliated with the Bavarian State Collection for Paleontology and Geology in Munich. The first results of their analysis of the plumage are reported in the latest issue of . The new data make a significant contribution to the ongoing debate over the evolution of feathers and its relationship to avian flight. They also imply that the links between feather development and the origin of flight are probably much more complex than has been assumed up to now.

To keep warm and to catch the eye

On the basis of their investigation of the plumage of the new fossil, the researchers have been able to clarify the taxonomical relationship between Archaeopteryx and other species of feathered dinosaur. Here, the diversity in form and distribution of the feather tracts is particularly striking. For instance, among dinosaurs that had feathers on their legs, many had long feathers extending to the toes, while others had shorter down-like plumage. "If feathers had evolved originally for flight, functional constraints should have restricted their range of variation. And in primitive birds we do see less variation in wing feathers than in those on the hind-limbs or the tail," explains Foth.

Archaeopteryx represents a transitional form between reptiles and birds and is the best-known, and possibly the earliest, bird fossil. It proves that modern birds are directly descended from predatory dinosaurs, and are themselves essentially modern-day dinosaurs. The many new fossil species of feathered dinosaurs discovered in China in recent years have made it possible to place Archaeopteryx within a larger evolutionary context. However, when feathers first appeared and how often flight evolved are matters that are still under debate.

<span style="font-family:"font-size:18px;">The eleventh known specimen of Archaeopteryx is still in private hands. Like all other examples of the genus, it was found in the Altmühl valley in Bavaria, which in Late Jurassic times lay in the northern tropics, and at the bottom of a shallow sea, as all Archaeopteryx fossils found so far have been recovered from limestone deposits.



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