Dr Dar­ren Naish

Palaeon­tol­o­gist, Uni­ver­sity of Southamp­ton

Focus-Science and Technology - - DISCOVERIES -

De­spite be­ing known to sci­ence for 160 years, the iconic ‘first bird’ Ar­chaeopteryx re­mains a pop­u­lar area of re­search. For spe­cial­ists, the sig­nif­i­cance of Dr Kun­drát and his team’s study is that it pro­vides qual­ity in­for­ma­tion on the anatomy of a spec­i­men not stud­ied in de­tail be­fore. Ar­chaeopteryx might be fa­mil­iar as fos­sil an­i­mals go, but sur­pris­ingly lit­tle has been pub­lished on its anatomy.

It is, how­ever, two other as­pects of the study that have cap­tured the most at­ten­tion. The first is that the spec­i­men is iden­ti­fied as a new species. Un­til re­cently, all Ar­chaeopteryx spec­i­mens were thought to be­long to the sole species: A. litho­graph­ica. But since 2001, ex­perts have agreed that sev­eral species are in­volved. Per­haps this view isn’t sur­pris­ing given that these an­i­mals in­hab­ited a trop­i­cal ar­chi­pel­ago: an en­vi­ron­ment where the ex­is­tence of sev­eral closely re­lated species would be pre­dicted. The down­side to this view is that sev­eral spec­i­mens are now in limbo. They seem to be part of Ar­chaeopteryx, but their pre­cise clas­si­fi­ca­tion is un­re­solved and more re­search is needed.

The team’s sec­ond main con­tention is that they have suc­cess­fully pinned Ar­chaeopteryx down on the di­nosaur fam­ily tree. It is, they say, a mem­ber of the bird lin­eage (termed Avialae), and not part of one of a num­ber of other groups closely re­lated to Avialae, such as the

Ve­loci­rap­tor or Troodon lin­eages. The pos­si­bil­ity that Ar­chaeopteryx might not be part of the bird lin­eage has been pro­moted in a few stud­ies, and while this it is not an es­pe­cially pop­u­lar view, it does seem to be over­turned by the new data re­ported in this study.

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