We have been studying fossils for hundreds of years, but every once in a while we come across something so bizarre and far removed from what we’ve previously understood that we almost wonder if it’s fake. Such was the case when German paleontologist Christian Erlich Hermann von Meyer discovered an unusual fossil that he couldn’t explained. A bird feather was present in 150-million-year-old limestone, which was quite unexpected, and a full skeleton was soon discovered and labeled as Archaeopteryx. A new study published in Nature Communications suggests that the Archaeopteryx did, indeed, fly, but that it did so unlike the majority of birds we’ve seen before.
When Hermann von Meyer first discovered the Archaeopteryx, it was only a couple of years following the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” We would discover in the years following that modern birds are closely related to dinosaurs – so closely related, in fact, that many species could even be considered modern-day dinosaurs. Just as modern birds fly through the air, the Archaeopteryx flew as well – but in the hundreds of millions of years since Archaeopteryx walked the earth, modern birds took a marked departure from how this ancient dinosaur flew.
While we were previously unsure as to whether the Archaeopteryx truly flew – perhaps believing that the plumed dinosaur was flightless such as the modern-day penguin or ostrich – a team of scientists led by Dennis Voeten, a researcher at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France, assets that this ancient dinosaur did take to the skies.
As mentioned above, modern birds are descendants of similar dinosaurs, but Voeten says that the Archaeopteryx was probably not a direct ancestor of birds like the sparrow or ostrich, instead representing an offshoot lineage – a statement backed up by the fact that the Archaeopteryx took flight in quite a bizarre manner.
Since the discovery of the first Archaeopteryx skeleton back in the 19th century, there has been much debate as to how exactly this dinosaur took flight. One camp suspected that the species couldn’t fly at all, with others believing that the Archaeopteryx used its wings to glide to the ground as a sugar glider. These theories count just two along a plethora of potential explanations for how exactly this bizarre dinosaur employed it’s feathery appendages.
In the new study published in Nature Communication, Voeten and his colleagues took a unique approach. Using a synchrotron – a powerful source of radiation – the team proved the fossils to try to uncover more about this mysterious dinosaur.
A synchrotron, the team explained, is similar to an X-ray yet far more sensitive. While a regular X-ray machine would fail to distinguish the Archaeopteryx fossil from the background rock, a synchrotron would be able to provide greater insight into the fossils by separating them from their surroundings during the imaging process.
Voeten explained that bones can be a good indicator of daily stress. He gave the example of a tennis player having a thicker bone on their dominant arm than with the other – serving as physical evidence of repeated use that necessitates the building of a stronger base. Just as with a professional tennis player, the wing bones of modern birds adjust due to the stress of flight – a piece of knowledge that Voeten and his team applied to the study of the Archaeopteryx.
During the study, the team took a look at cross-sections of the Archaeopteryx bones and then compared them to a variety of possible matches. Flying birds, flightless birds, other dinosaurs and modern crocodilians were all examined to see if they were a potential match to these ancient fossils that the researchers hoped to demystify.
According to the study, the Archaeopteryx bones most closely matched those of what Voeten refers to as “burst fliers.” That means that the dinosaur probably flew in a way similar to pheasants, roadrunners and turkeys – all birds that are able to propel themselves into the air with a powerful “snap” of the wings.
However, there were actually some differences when compared to birds like the pheasant, putting the Archaeopteryx in a category all its own. While modern birds have wings that are attached to the sternum, this dinosaur had wings that attached to the arms – moving in a similar way to if a human was mimicking the flapping of wings. This means that the Archaeopteryx was probably incapable of flying in the same way as a traditional bird due to different dynamics of their anatomy.
This new finding gives us greater insight into this ancient dinosaur and may potentially close the door on a centuries-old mystery.