Get to know a Dino: Archaeopteryx lithographica

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When Archaeopteryx was first described in 1861, it caused a sensation. With wings and feathers, it was considered the first bird. Today, scientists think Archaeopteryx wasn’t able to fly very well, but the species still represents a turning point in paleontologists’ understanding of the relationship between ancient dinosaurs and modern birds in the design of both its body and brain.

Archaeopteryx fossil.

A fossil cast of Archaeopteryx, with the imprint of its wings clearly visible.

© AMNH


In Transition

The first Archaeopteryx fossils ever found included exquisitely preserved skeletons with clear imprints of wings and feathers, but also teeth and a bony tail. Discovered not long after Charles Darwin proposed the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, Archaeopteryx provided an example of evolution in action—a fossil that showed the transition between non-avian dinosaurs and birds.

Ready for Takeoff?

Fossils of Archaeopteryx show clear imprints of bird-like feathers—but could it fly? Some scientists think its flying ability may have been limited to flapping its wings to help it run up tree trunks from which it could then glide or flap back down to the ground.

Artists Rendering of Archaeopteryx

Animals like Archaeopteryx show the development of birdlike brains in dinosaurs. 

© AMNH/Z. Chuang; courtesy of Peking Natural Science Organization


Bird-Brained?

Museum researchers have used CT scans of numerous birds and bird-like dinosaurs, including Archaeopteryx, to learn more about the brains of modern dinosaurs and ancient birds alike. The surprising results suggest that dinosaurs much larger and older and older than this one may have had "flight-ready" brains, though their bodies were much too large to take to the air.

Fossilized Feathers

Feathers are light and airy, but that doesn’t mean they’re delicate. These structures are extremely sturdy and can fossilize well under the right conditions, so feather fossils are not uncommon.

See fossil casts and a life-sized model of Archaeopteryx, along with many other dinosaurs and early birds, in Dinosaurs Among Us, now on view.