A a detailed description of the creature, and an answer to the question of why it is regarded as important evidence for evolution.
Archaeopteryx is the name given to a creature from the Late Jurassic Period (150 million years ago). The characteristics of this animal are strange to the modern eye, as it has a similar body shape to a European Magpie, but has many features in common with Mesozoic dinosaurs, such as the sharp-toothed jaws, clawed fingers, and a long bony tail. This bizarre phenotype has led the archaeopteryx to become a popular example of a transitional fossil, which is closely related to the origin of modern day birds.
The archaeopteryx lived in what is now part of Germany, in an era during which Europe was far closer to the equator, and therefore had a far more tropical climate. The creature would have been 50cm long, and weighed around 0.9 kilograms. It had a lightweight, feathered body, a flat sternum, large eyes, conical teeth (1), a long neck, and long thighs supported by short calves. Physical data suggests that the creature was capable of flight by this stage, but the ability was far from refined. Despite this, the archaeopteryx’s well developed flight feathers are widely considered the most important part of the fossils, especially in terms of using them as evolutionary evidence, as they have a very similar structure to that of modern birds.
These proto-birds developed over a far longer period than their modern avian counterparts. It is estimated that after hatching, archaeopteryxes took around 32 months to grow to their adult size (all known specimens died and were fossilised as juveniles). They could potentially have lived for up to forty years (2), compared to just twenty years for a contemporary European Magpie (3).
The first archaeopteryx fossil was discovered in 1860, by a German palaeontologist named Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer. The fossil consisted of a single feather, buried in the Solnhofen Limestone of South Germany. The fossil is widely regarded as the first evidence of the archaeopteryx, but little info could be extrapolated from a mere feather, and there is even some uncertainty that the creature it belonged to was even a member of the same species.
In later years, there have been several subsequent discoveries, all far more useful. Detailed analysis has provided strong evidence that the archaeopteryx shows the intermediate evolutionary stage between the Jurassic dinosaurs and modern day birds.
Around the time of their discovery, however, the authenticity of the archaeopteryx fossils was repeatedly questioned. Even as late as 1985, papers were published by physicist Lee Spetner and astronomer Fred Hoyle which set out to prove that the Berlin and London specimens were simply forgeries (4).
The controversy continues to this day, mainly consisting of the anti-evolution arguments perpetuated by religious fundamentalists, but by and large the archaeopteryx fossils have been accepted as solid evidence for the theory of evolution. These fossils are very important to biologists and archaeologists alike because they lay out the ancestral origins of modern-day birds as well as providing a vital clue as to the evolutionary lineage between the organisms of the Jurassic Period and those of the present day. This key position in scientific history has led the archaeopteryx specimens to sit among the most well-known fossils of all time.
1. Confirming that they were carnivores.
2. This is only a vague estimate, as I have found little in the way of precise figures.
3. Both cases assume that the organism lives out its full potential lifespan. Obviously, most would die of unnatural causes long before.
4. Though the reasons given, such as how the slabs of rock around the fossil split so smoothly, merely indicated that they were unfamiliar with lithification (sediments compacting under pressure to become solid rock).
Originally written February 2012 by Robin Taylor. Scored at B