Archaeopteryx lithographica – The Berlin specimen

The transitional fossil link between dinosaurs and modern birds

The Archaeopteryx Feather: first trace of the primeval bird by Hwa Ja Götz (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

The globally first fossil of a feather was discovered 1860 in a quarry near Solnhofen. It was described in 1861 as Archaeopteryx – "old feather, old wing".

Archaeopteryx lithographica – the Berlin specimen (2016-09-09) by Hwa Ja GötzMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

Soon, further discoveries were made. Because Archaeopteryx displays characteristics of both dinosaurs and birds, it is recognized as a transitional fossil (or "missing link").

The main slab of the Berlin specimen has been called the "Mona Lisa" of fossils. Since 2007 the original is on permanent display in the Museum. Do visit it!

Werner von Siemens, Image by Giacomo Brogi (1822–1881), Florenz; Meisenbach Riffarth & Co. Berlin by Giacomo Brogi (1822–1881), Florenz and Meisenbach Riffarth & Co. BerlinMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

History of discovery: The „Berlin specimen“ of Archaeopteryx was discovered between 1874 and 1876 near Eichstätt in Germany. The original finder sold it for the value of a cow (approx. 150 Mark) to a quarry owner, who sold it for 2000 Mark to E.O. Häberlein, who placed it internationally on sale for 20 000 Goldmark. This high price exceeded the financial abilities of several interested museums. In 1879 Werner von Siemens (shown here) financed the transaction, placing the specimen with the Humboldt Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. After 2 years, the museums could pay the money back and has been the owner ever since. Described in 1884 by Wilhelm Dames, with its excellent preservation of feathers and skull it is considered the most complete and beautiful specimen of Archaeopteryx.

Archaeopteryx, detail of teeth and curved neck (HR 04) by Hwa Ja Götz (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Unlike modern birds, Archaeopteryx has teeth instead of a bill.

The neck is notably curved backwards. When in a dead animal tendons and muscles dry, they will shorten and pull the neck backwards into a strange position. This can also be observed in other fossils.

Archaeopteryx lithographica – the Berlin specimen (2016-09-09) by Hwa Ja GötzMuseum für Naturkunde Berlin

The long tail is a characteristic of dinosaurs, while the tail feathers are typical for birds. In modern birds the vertebrae of the tail are shortened and fused into a single ossification, still bearing the tail feathers.

Archaeopteryx, detail of claws on the fingers (HR 05) by Hwa Ja Götz (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

While the long asymmetrical wingfeathers, the elongated arm and the collarbone show a clear similarity with modern birds, the three clawed fingers are a trait of dinosaurs.

Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin) by Hwa Ja Götz (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Among modern birds, only the juveniles of the hoatzin have claws on their wing digits. Some scientists therefore postulated a relationship with Archaeopteryx. This has since been found to be false

The counter slab of the Berlin specimen by Hwa Ja Götz (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

The counterslab of the Berlin specimen is partly damaged. Nevertheless, the information it contains is of the highest scientific value.

Feathered Flight - 150 Years of Archaeopteryx by Nils Hoff (MfN) and Hwa Ja Götz (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

If you want to know more about Archaeopteryx, feathers and bird flight, we recommend our online exhibit "Feathered Flight — 150 years of Archaeopteryx"!

Credits: Story

Images: Carola Radke, Hwa Ja Götz, Graphical design "Federflug": Nils Hoff (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin)

Text: Gregor Hagedorn, Alice Chodura (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin)

Curators and scientific consultation: Dr. Daniela Schwarz, Dr. Sylke Frahnert (Museum für Naturkunde Berlin)


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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