Archaeopteryx shook the scientific world when it was announced in 1861. This small crow-sized creature had large feathers but also retained primitive reptilian features including sharp teeth, hands, and a long bony tail. This 'missing link' between reptiles and birds helped to shape our understanding of dinosaur evolution. To this day, Archaeopteryx is still the most ancient fossil bird ever found, and one of the most famous fossils in the world. It lived in Germany during the late Jurassic, 150 million years ago.
The first Archaeopteryx skeleton was announced in 1861 after beingexcavated by quarrymen from the Solnhofen Limestone deposits ofBavaria, Germany. Earlier that year an isolated feather had beendescribed from the same deposits under the name of Archaeopteryx, or 'ancient feather'. It was clear that thepartially articulated fossil skeleton, which was preserved instunning detail with a fan of feathers spreading from its arms andtail, belonged to the same creature.
The skeleton was owned by a local doctor, Carl Haberlein, whosold it to the British Museum in 1862. It became known as the"London Specimen" and remains there to this day. The specimen wasdescribed by Richard Owen, the founder of the museum and creator ofthe word "dinosaur", who noted the presence of a wish bone in Archaeopteryx suited for flight. Later scientists noted itsunusual combination of bird and reptile characters.
The discovery of Archaeopteryx was timely. Charles Darwin had recentlypublished his controversial book 'On the Origin of Species' in 1859, so a 'missing link' suchas Archaeopteryx - an apparently transitional form betweenreptiles and birds - was a pivotal piece of evidence. Archaeopteryx, the so-called 'first bird', therefore helpedevolutionary theory to gain widespread acceptance.
A second specimen of Archaeopteryx was discovered in 1876 that was even morespectacular than the first. This complete articulated specimen alsohad feathers preserved and is probably the most famous fossil everfound. It ended up in Berlin's Museum fur Naturkunde. Since then,eight or so more Archaeopteryx fossils have been discovered, but none are ascomplete or iconic as the amazing "Berlin Specimen".
There is only one valid species, Archaeopteryx lithographica. It flew around the shallowlagoons of late Jurassic Germany, 150 million years ago, where ithunted for small prey.