The Missing Link to Birds?
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
Ceylon Today Features
Birds are a wonderful group of creatures to have around the garden. As cute and lively as they may be, they are one of the oldest species to exist on this planet. In fact, scientists study birds to better understand what dinosaurs may have been like, long ago in history.
For many years, scientists searched for a missing link that connected both birds and dinosaurs to prove that these two groups of creatures have what is called an evolutionary link (which means that one might have evolved from the other). Their search was rewarded with the discovery of the Archaeopteryx (AR-KEE-OP-TER-IX). A fossil discovered in Germany by German palaeontologist Hermann von Meyer, around the year 1861.
The fossil was of a very curious dinosaur. It was small, very small and had wings with feathers.
Since then, 11 such fossils and one fossilised feather were discovered in that area of southern Germany, perfectly preserved in limestone. Scientists believed a massive, prehistoric swamp might have existed in the area during the late Jurassic period, a period of time where Archaeopteryx was alive and well.
This ancient species of dinosaur was an iconic find, and helped strengthen Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was still a hot topic during that time. So far, there have been twelve fossils of Archaeopteryx bodies, although scientists think that none of these are adult specimens.
From the fossils we have, Archaeopteryx was about the size of a hawk, with wings and a very long tail, weighing at about 1 kilogram, these ancient dinosaurs are believed to have glided from perch to perch, feeding off of small lizards, insects and other animals.
After studying the bone structure of these dinosaurs, it was discovered that they were very similar to that of theropod dinosaurs such as the Velociraptor and the much larger Tyrannosaurus Rex (T-Rex), while having a lot of similarities with bird-like characteristics as well.
There are some differences between the specimens discovered, which is why there is a debate on the possibility that more than one Archaeopteryx species existed at that time. But that’s still not definite yet.
The name Archaeopteryx derives from the two words archaios and pteryx, when put together, mean ‘old wing’ because of this dinosaur being the first one discovered with feathered wings. In fact, the first recorded fossil of this dinosuar was a feather, and caused a huge uproar in the world of paleontology.
Missing link or not?
When Archaeopteryx was first discovered, many believed that the missing link between the evolution of birds and dinosaurs had been found. Many years later, scientists have found other dinosaurs with feathers and are even reconsidering if Archaeopteryx really was the fabled missing link.
This ‘feathered dinosaur’ is also considered the first known bird. It had sharp teeth, clawed fingers on its wings, and a long tail with a bony core.
At the moment, that is still an ongoing debate between scientists. With only a dozen fossils, we know only very little about this iconic dinosaur. You never know though, maybe the next important discovery to unlock the may secrets of this elusive dinosaur is just around the corner, waiting to be unearthed.