Archeopteryx, the most iconic feather dinosaur in history, was it a walker, a glider or a bird capable of flying? A recent study published in Nature Communications suggests that the wing bones of the ancient animal were formed for occasional active flight, but not for the type of flight controlled by modern birds.
Archeopteryx was a bizarre creature about the size of a magpie, with the feathers and wings of a bird, but also the teeth, claws and a long bony tail of a dinosaur. He lived at the end of the Jurassic, 156 to 150 million years ago, in a then insular environment, which is currently in Germany. The Archeopteryx was also the first fossil discovered with well preserved feathers and was long considered the oldest fossil bird.
Today we know that modern birds are descended from dinosaurs, but many questions about their evolution — and especially about how they fly — persist. Using an all-new analytical technique – synchrotron microtomography – an international team of paleontologists now argues that this feathered dinosaur was indeed able to fly. Nothing to do, however, with the capabilities of our modern birds, highly calibrated for flight.
The researchers here observed the wing bones of three fossils of Archeopteryx. In addition to the thickness of the bone walls, the images revealed the sizes and shapes of the bones of the wing. These measurements were then compared with those of terrestrial animals and other flying species ranging from pterosaurs to birds.
If the feathered wings of Archeopteryx resemble those of modern birds, the structure of their shoulders is ultimately incompatible with the flutter cycle that can be observed today. Data analysis suggests that Archeopteryx bones are most similar to birds such as pheasants or turkeys, which sometimes use active flying to break through barriers or escape predators. But nothing to do with the flights of birds of prey, for example.
“We know that the area around Solnhofen in south-east Germany was a tropical archipelago and such an environment seems perfectly suited to island hopping or escape flying,” says Martin Röper, co-founder of author of the study.
Thus, the one who was considered the first known bird would ultimately belong to an evolutionary branch of the one that led to modern birds. This new study also provides us with insight into the early evolution of dinosaur flight. Indeed, we now know that Archeopteryx already flew very punctually 150 million years ago, which implies that flight in dinosaurs had evolved well before.