It has long been debated whether dino-bird Archaeopteryx could take to the skies, but now, research provides the most conclusive evidence yet that it could. But did it evade predators by soaring through the skies like an elegant falcon? No. It flapped into flight like a startled pheasant before quickly making its descent and running away on foot.
Archaeopteryx lived in southern Germany, which was once a tropical paradise, during the Late Jurassic Period about 150 million years ago and was the size of a magpie. Its name literally means “ancient wing” in ancient Greek. The first fossil was found back in 1861 and since then another 11 have been unearthed.
The genus is famous for marking the transition from dinosaurs to birds. The fossils provide important evidence for evolution that helped confirm Darwin’s theory and improve our understanding of how modern dinosaurs – or, as we call them, birds – evolved.
Archaeopteryx has generally been accepted as the oldest-known bird, but whether it could actually fly like most modern birds, or remained a ground-dweller like the kiwis and kakapos of New Zealand, has remained unclear. In fact, with their sharp teeth and long bony tails, Archaeopteryx had more in common with Mesozoic dinosaurs than modern-day birds. Although Archaeopteryx did have feathered wings, the structure of its shoulders has cast doubt on whether it could fly.
So, an international team of scientists decided to investigate, using state-of-the-art X-ray scanning techniques. Their findings are published in the journal Nature Communications. Using X-rays 100 billion times more powerful than those used to look inside people at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, the researchers could examine the internal workings of the bones of three Archaeopteryx fossils without damaging them.
The team found that the fossilized wing bones were far more reminiscent of lightweight bird skeletons than those of heavy-footed dinos. The bones had thin walls – some just a millimeter thick – making them suitable for flight.
The researchers note that the bone structure of the wings is similar to that of birds that fly in “bursts” but can’t glide or beat their wings over long distances. These kinds of birds include things like pheasants and partridges which, when taken by surprise, will suddenly flutter up into the air, fly for a short distance, and make the rest of their escape on foot.
Nevertheless, the strange shoulder structure of Archaeopteryx would have meant that its wings moved strangely, like the arms of a swimmer using butterfly stroke. “Archaeopteryx and pheasants may have shared a similar lifestyle that involved flying to cross barriers and dodge predators, but how they flew would have been very different,” lead author Dennis Voeten told The Guardian.
So, there we have it. Archaeopteryx could indeed fly, but perhaps not quite as majestically as we might have hoped.