17 Jun 2011 - 31 Dec 2011

Feathered Flight — 150 years of Archaeopteryx

Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

An exhibition on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the first description of Archaeopteryx lithographica, shown June 2011 to February 2012 at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.

Feathered Flight
In 1861 Hermann von Meyer described a fossilized feather from Solnhofener Plattenkalk as <i>Archaeopteryx lithographica</i>. Little later he could connect it to another fossil finding, the "sceleton of an animal that is covered with feathers. Hermann von Meyer did realize that this is a sensation - but he still could not assess the degree to which the discussions about this fossil would change the worldwide scientific discourse. Today <i>Archaeopteryx</i> is perhaps the most famous fossil globally. Next to the original "Berlin specimen" Exemplar" the 2011/2012 special exhibition showed for the first time both the opposing plate and the original of the fossilized feather.

A view into the former special exhibition "Feathered Flight" at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin

From dinosaurs to birds
Since the discovery of the Archaeopteryx feather, scientists have been wondering how something as complex as a feather developed in the first place. How did the evolution of the feather proceed? Recent fossil finds of feathered dinosaurs provided some idea of what the predecessors of modern feathers may have looked like. In their evolution, it can be supposed, that they developed from simple, hollow filaments into modern, functional feathers that support locomotion.

Up to this day, the Archaeopteryx feather remains the only and the oldest single feather from the Jurassic period.

The "Mona Lisa" of fossils: Only 11 fossils of Archaeopteryx have been found. With the detailed feathers and well preserved skull, the "Berlin specimen" is one of the most complete and beautiful ones.

The scientific value of the counter slab cannot be valued highly enough. Its surface shows imprints of feathers in amazing detail. This is what makes it so special for evolutionary research.

Birds evolved from feathered dinosaurs. Compared to budgerigars, it is hard to imagine how they would relate to dangerous raptors. But compared to an ostrich, similiarities become clearer.

Birds of all shapes and sizes have managed to inhabit the most diverse habitats on Earth. Experts estimate that the Earth is home to 300,000,000,000 (three hundred billion!) birds in total.

Feathers are complex structures and characteristic for modern birds. They vary in shape, colour and function and are as diverse as their wearers.

Like hair and nails, feathers consist of keratin, which is produced by specialised cells in the epidermis. These keratinize and then die, leaving behind very strong keratin structures.

Not all feathers are the same!
There are basically two types of feathers: Down feathers, consisting of tufts of barbule, and contour feathers.

Name: Alula - Bastard wing
Function: steering

Name: small contour feathers (lest) and down feathers (right)
Function: insulation and shape

Name: rectrices
Function: steering and landing

Name: greater upper wing coverts and greater primary coverts
Function: covering the wing

Name: primaries and secondaries
Function: generation of aerodynamic lift

Feathers: Shape, colour and function
Feathers are the characteristic feature of birds and a prerequisite for feathered flight. Yet not all feathers are used for flying: their functions are diverse, and their repertoire of forms and colours is inexhaustible.

Down from the trees or up from the ground?
How did birds‘ flight evolve?

The keel-shaped sternum (breastbone) is where the powerful flight muscles attach to the body. Not feathers, but this anatomical structure is the main prerequisite for flight.

A bird‘s flight depends on having feathers – they give it its streamlined form and are what enable the bird to fly thanks to their aerodynamic properties.

Rueppell's vulture (Gyps rueppellii): The feathers on the alula and tail which can be controlled by the muscular system when flying enable agile flight manoeuvres and landing.

Large gliding birds such as the sea eagle fan out the feathers on their wing tips during flight – this leads to a lower resistance, thus saving energy.

The more a feather is worn, the poorer its aerodynamic properties. Various factors such as wind and sun,and even the pigmentation of the feather affect the way it wears down.

Decorative feathers are no use for flying and seem to be more of a hindrance – so why has evolution still produced them in all shapes and colours?

Cicinnurus regius
King Bird-of-paradise
Tail feather (140 mm)

Cicinnurus regius
King Bird-of-paradise
Tail feather (140 mm)

Cicinnurus regius
King Bird-of-paradise
Tail feather (140 mm)

Sexual selection: In the mating season, the male great argus spreads out his huge feathers and shows off the colourful iridescent eyespots on the underside of the feathers to attract hens.

Impressive tail feathers

The ptarmigan is a master of camouflage – its plumage has a different colour to fit the season: in winter snow-white and in summer speckled black and brown.

Down feathers as winter dress: Birds are warm-blooded animals and their feathers play a crucial role in regulating the body temperature – especially in sub-zero temperatures.

An exhibition on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the first description of <i>Archaeopteryx lithographica</i>.
Credits: Story

Opening of the special exhibition: 18th June 2011

Exhibition design: Benedikt Esch (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin)
Photography: Carola Radke, Hwa Ja Götz (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin)
Graphic design & illustration: Nils Hoff (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin)
Media technology, media strategy: Valentin Henning (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin)
Coordination: Uwe Moldrzyk, Linda Gallé (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin)
Public relations: Dr. Gesine Steiner, Juliane Röhner, Lisa Kluckert

Curators: Dr. Daniela Schwarz-Wings, Dr. Sylke Frahnert, Dr. Oliver Hampe, all Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Taxidermy and conservatory assistance: Robert Stein, Jürgen Fiebig, Detlev Matzke, Pascal Eckhoff, Ralf Bonke, Markus Brinkmann, Lutz Berner (all Museum für Naturkunde Berlin)

Contributors: Thomas Schmid-Dankward, Hendrik Schneider, Holger Schick, Christy Hipsley, Annegret Henkel, Eva Patzschke, Konstantin Päßler, Tra Bouscaren

Exhibition construction: Ausstellungsmanufaktur Hertzer

Loans from: Naturkundemuseum Erfurt, Naturkundemuseum Potsdam, Senckenberg Museum Frankfurt, Klaus Wechsler, Bremen, Robert Stein, Pascal Eckhoff

© www.naturkundemuseum.berlin

Credits: All media
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