Dr Darren Naish
Palaeontologist, University of Southampton
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.