Perhaps one of the world’s best known fossils is Archaeopteryx. With its beautifully preserved feathers, it has long been regarded as the first bird in the fossil record, and is often called “the icon of evolution”. Only a handful of specimens have ever been found, its elusivity adding to its fascination.
But was it really the first bird – and could it really fly? Given that we now know birds descended from dinosaurs, was Archaeopteryx actually just another small dinosaur with a feathery covering?
My colleagues and I had the rare opportunity to examine an Archaeopteryx skeleton using one of the world’s most powerful synchrotrons, a type of particle accelerator rather like an X-ray machine but ten thousand billion times brighter than those in a hospital. We were able to see inside the rock and uncover fragments of bone that had never been seen before. What we discovered surprised us: this was an entirely new species of Archaeopteryx.
The first Archaeopteryx fossil was uncovered in the Jurassic limestones of Bavaria, in the summer of 1861, just two years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. It appeared to be one of Darwin’s predicted “missing links”, the link between reptiles and birds, specifically between dinosaurs and birds.
It certainly looked like a bird, with delicately preserved feathers on its wings and a fan-shaped tail. It also had a wishbone or “furcula”, just like you find in a roast chicken. And both of these features were thought at the time only to occur in birds. But Archaeopteryx also had some very reptilian features – a long, bony tail, and a jaw filled with very sharp teeth – and seemed to be part way between the two groups of animals.