An article published in the journal “Historical Biology” describes the discovery of a new species of the genus Archeopteryx. A team of researchers examined a specimen discovered in the 1990s in a quarry in Bavaria, Germany, and passed through the hands of a number of owners. Thanks to a sophisticated microtomographic technique they were able to create a virtual representation that convinced them that it belongs to a species different from the two already known and they named it Archeopteryx albersdoerferi.
Archeopteryx is a genus of feathered dinosaurs that lived in the Late Jurassic, between about 150 and 148 million years ago, with a size similar to a crow’s that had various characteristics of birds that became famous from the first discoveries. In 1861 a fossil feather led to the first attribution but actually there’s no certainty that it belongs to an animal of this genus but in the same year the first skeleton was discovered.
Soon the hypotheses about the Archeopteryx’s relationship with birds and its ancestors began. Controversies also began because those were the years when Charles Darwin was starting spreading his evolution theory and this animal was considered one of the first major confirmations.
In the following decades, other specimens were discovered but only a few were attributed to the genus Archeopteryx, while others were attributed to genera created by the researchers who described the fossils. Only in the last decade a review of the known fossils led to the conclusion that there were two species, Archaeopteryx lithographica and Archeopteryx siemensii, and all the known fossils belonged to them.
In the meantime, other feathered dinosaurs and primitive birds have been discovered, creating the doubt that actually Archeopteryxes were cousins of modern birds and not their direct ancestors. There have also been allegations of forgery of fossils but all the tests, including recent laser scans, confirmed their authenticity.
12 specimens of Archeopteryx are known in various states of completeness and conservation. The one examined in this research is specimen number 8 and its history is complex since for about twenty years it’s been sold a number of times until it eventually arrived into the hands of scientists who started studying it. The positive thing is that today there are modern technologies that help paleontologists, in this case a microtomography conducted at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, which allowed to create a 3D model of the animal.
Dr. Martin Kundrát, the article’s first author, explained that it’s the first time that numerous bones and teeth of Archeopteryx are seen also exposing their internal structure. He added that it was the only way to study that specimen because it was very compressed within the rock and many fragmented bones were partially or completely hidden in the limestone.
The dating of the specimen indicates that it’s the youngest among the known Archeopteryx of about half a million years and that was a significant factor in the researchers’ assessment. They also found anatomical differences compared to the other specimens that make it closer to modern birds. Dr. John Nudds, another of the article’s authors, pointed out that these adaptations allowed it to fly more efficiently than other Archeopteryxes, and their flight capabilities were among the points of controversy over the course of the century and a half that passed since the first discoveries.
For these reasons, the researchers concluded that the specimen they studied belongs to a species different from the known ones and they named it Archeopteryx albersdoerferi. They believe that it’s a bird and not one of the various feathered dinosaurs known today, a theory that was suggested by other researchers even in recent years, after the discovery of other species of dinosaurs with various characteristics typical of birds.
The results of this research are very interesting but they will hardly resolve the controversies around Archeopteryx. The authors have even given new grounds for dispute stating that the microtomographic examination they conducted is the first on a fossil belonging to this genus but actually an article published in the journal “Nature Communications” in March 2018 described the results of an examination of that type on three other Archeopteryx specimens, again conducted at the ESRF. In that case the aim of the research was to understand if this animal could fly and the conclusions were positive though some questions remain.
These research confirm the usefulness of modern technologies in the study of fossils sometimes known for many years to conduct very thorough but not destructive exams. In the end, however, there are human beings who study fossils that are often incomplete and they must compare their results with those of other researches. In the case of Archeopteryx, despite Martin Kundrát’s team’s conclusions there will certainly be more discussions to understand which species of feathered dinosaurs are the ancestors of modern birds.