The Crown Jewel
Archaeopteryx is one of the most important scientific discoveries in history. This small but remarkable animal exhibits traits of dinosaurs and modern birds - the first "missing link' in the fossil record. In terms of its preservation and completeness, The Thermopolis Specimen is regarded as the best specimen of Archaeopteryx yet know.
Many of the skeletal features of Archaeopteryx, particularly the feathers,can be difficult to see to the untrained eye. This scientific drawing labels the subtle features present on the Thermopolis Specimen. In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, presenting his hypothesis for the mechanisms of evolution. In his manuscript, Darwin theorized in the existence of "transitional forms," a prehistoric animal seemingly caught in the midst of evolving into a new species, but none existed at the time his book was published. Four years later, the first Archaeopteryx was discovered in Germany. The Thermopolis Specimen itself was discovered near Eichstatt in Germany. Since it is part of the collection of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center - in Thermopolis, WY - it is referred to as the Thermopolis Specimen.
Archaeopteryx - Thermopolis SpecimenThe Wyoming Dinosaur Center
Only twelve specimens of Archaeopteryx have been discovered, and none are more complete and better preserved than the Thermopolis Specimen. Many features that were previously unknown or not well understood were found to be spectacularly present. Many fossils are crushed and distorted - the result of millions of years of fossilization. The Thermopolis Specimen is preserved in three dimensions - an extraordinary amount of detail for scientific analysis.
The scientific importance of Archaeopteryx derives from a variety of skeletal features. The Thermopolis Specimen -the most complete yet found - displays many of these significant characteristics.
The skull contains a mouthful of sharp, serrated teeth. No modern birds have teeth. This shows that Archaeopteryx is a feathered dinosaur, not "the first bird" as previously believed.
Although faint, the impressions of feathers can be seen attached to the arms. These impressions reveal the structure, size, even the color of Archaeopteryx's prehistoric plumage.
This fulcra - or wishbone - is an excellent example of Archaeopteryx's links to dinosaurs and modern birds. Many dinosaurs had wishbones - even dinosaurs are large as Tyrannosaurus.
The presence of a hyperextensible second toe - and a curved "killing claw" - proves that Archaeopteryx is a maniraptorian, a small theropod dinosaur closely related to the famous Velociraptor.
The tail is long and rigid - just like a dinosaur - and surrounded by impressions of bird - like feathers. This is why Archaeopteryx is described as a "missing link" in evolution.
The Past Informs the Future
The first specimen of Archaeopteryx was discovered over 150 years ago, and yet so many questions about this fantastic creature remain unresolved. The discovery and analysis of the Thermopolis Specimen has not only contributed to our understanding of Archaeopteryx, but our understanding of evolution. The continuing research will prove invaluable of our understanding of the past, present, and future of the natural world.
For more information about the Thermopolis Specimen:
Mayr, G.; Phol, B.; Hartman, S.; Peters, D. S. (2007). "The tenth skeletal specimen of Archaeopteryx". Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. 149: 97–116.