Known as “the missing link” between dinosaurs and birds, Archaeopteryx lived lived in the Late Jurassic around 150 million years ago. Now, an international team of scientists has identified a new species of Archaeopteryx that they say is closer to modern birds in evolutionary terms and distinctive and different enough to be described as a new species – Archaeopteryx albersdoerferi.
Archaeopteryx lived in what is now southern Germany during a time when Europe was an archipelago of islands in a warm, shallow tropical sea. It was about the size of a magpie, with the largest individuals possibly attaining the size of a raven. Archaeopteryx was first described as the “missing link” between reptiles and birds in 1861. Only 12 fossil specimens have ever been found.
For the study, the team re-examined one of these 12 fossil specimens by carrying out the first ever synchrotron examination, a form of 3-D X-ray analysis. The researchers concluded that that this individual Archaeopteryx fossil, known as specimen number eight, was physically much closer to a modern bird than it is to a reptile.
John Nudds, from the University of Manchester’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, is co-author of the study, published October 24, 2018, in the peer-reviewed journal Historical Biology. Nudds said in a statement:
Whenever a missing link is discovered, this merely creates two further missing links – what came before, and what came after! What came before was discovered in 1996 with the feathered dinosaurs in China. Our new species is what came after. It confirms Archaeopteryx as the first bird, and not just one of a number of feathered theropod dinosaurs, which some authors have suggested recently. You could say that it puts Archaeopteryx back on its perch as the first bird!
The researcher said that some of the differing skeletal characteristics of Archaeopteryx albersdoerferi include the fusion of cranial bones, different pectoral girdle (chest) and wing elements, and a reinforced configuration of carpals and metacarpals (hand) bones. These characteristics are seen more in modern flying birds and are not found in the older Archaeopteryx lithographica species, which more resembles reptiles and dinosaurs.
Specimen number eight is the newest of all the 12 known specimens by approximately half a million years. This age difference in comparison to the other specimens is a key factor in describing it as a new species. Nudds said:
By digitally dissecting the fossil we found that this specimen differed from all of the others. It possessed skeletal adaptations which would have resulted in much more efficient flight. In a nutshell we have discovered what Archaeopteryx lithographica evolved into – i.e., a more advanced bird, better adapted to flying – and we have described this as a new species of Archaeopteryx.
Bottom line: A study identifies a new species of Archaeopteryx, called the missing link between dinosaurs and birds.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.