Researchers from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich recently discovered the oldest fossil in the Archaeopteryx genus, and their findings shed new light the evolutionary steps between bird-like dinosaurs and modern birds.
The genus Archaeopteryx describes a group of feathered dinosaur species and is considered the earliest known bird. Paleontologists often describe Archaeopteryx fossils as transitional because they bridge the gap between dinosaurs and birds.
Archaeopteryx lived during the late Jurassic Period 1150 million years ago in what is now Northern Bavaria. The landscape would have been subtropical with lagoons and reef islands during that time.
All Archaeopteryx fossils have been found in Northern Bavaria in the Altmühl River valley. The most recent fossil belonging to the genus was unearthed in 2010 and is the oldest known fossil of Archaeopteryx that has been discovered.
The new find is the 11th fossil specimen of Archaeopteryx found to date.
Researchers led by Oliver Rauhut, an LMU professor from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, analyzed the fossil using stratigraphy. Stratigraphy is used by geologists and paleontologists a way to map the geological history of different layers, or strata, in rocks.
The discovery provided new insight into the genus and showed some features that were not yet known about the group of species.
The researchers were able to use the fossil to show differences between Archaeopteryx and both of its bird and dinosaur relatives.
Because of the limited number of fossils that have been found and the wide range of variations in anatomy among them, there is a good deal of uncertainty about the genus and its species.
“The high degree of variation in the teeth is particularly striking – none of the specimens shows the same pattern of dentition as any other, which could reflect differences in diet,” said Rauhut. “It is even conceivable that this primeval bird genus might, in a similar fashion, have diversified into several specialized forms on the islands of the Solnhofener Archipelago.”
Image Credit: O. Rauhut, LMU Munich