150-Million-Year-Old Feathered Dinosaur Fossil Proves Prehistoric Birds Lived Longer Than Previously Believed

The recently discovered specimen of Archaeopteryx, winged animals with dinosaur traits, like sharp teeth and a long tail. The pristine fossil unearthed in northern Bavaria has now been determined to be the oldest fossil bird ever discovered. O. Rauhut, LMU Munich

A pristine fossil unearthed in northern Bavaria has now been determined to be the oldest fossil bird ever discovered. The fossil belongs to a type of Archaeopteryx, winged animals with dinosaur traits, like sharp teeth and a long tail. The newly discovered fossil reveals that these bird-like dinosaurs lived on several islands—though whether they flew there is still anyone's guess.

Archaeopteryx means "first wing." The most famous example of this prehistoric creature, called the Berlin specimen, was so well-preserved that paleontologists could see distinct impressions of large, wide feathers pressed into the earth around it as it died. Archaeopteryx fossils helped scientists understand that the true origin of birds is to be found in theropod dinosaurs, two-legged, sharp-toothed species like Velociraptor.

In a paper published Friday in the journal PeerJ, a team of paleontologists from Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich (LMU) describe the new northern Bavarian specimen as the 11th fossil to be, the researchers claim, definitely within the Archaeopteryx genus.

In the summer of 2010, a collector in Schamhaupten, Germany, found the specimen and brought it to a group of paleontologists and geologists. The sediment that the fossil was found in is likely slightly older than any other Archaeopteryx fossil location, based on previous chemical analysis, at more than 150 million years old.

An overview of the skeleton of the new Archaeopteryx specimen under UV light. The word “Archaeopteryx” means “first wing.” O. Rauhut, LMU Munich

Establishing it firmly as an Archaeopteryx was a high-stakes task. In the past, some alleged Archaeopteryx fossils have turned out to be too physically different to be considered true members of the genus. In December, this happened with the first "Archaeopteryx" ever found: It turned out that the animal was more closely related to Anchiornis, a completely different small, feathered dinosaur. The scientists note that, because of this confusion, it's important to have a robust collection of well-studied Archaeopteryx fossils in order to compare future discoveries to the known specimens.

The newly described specimen helps scientists understand this important genus even better. For example, we now know that the animals lived over a span of at least a million years, which is longer than we previously understood. Furthermore, by studying the characteristics of this oldest specimen and comparing them with other specimens, paleontologists can understand the variety in the physical appearance of Archaeopteryx. Notably, the teeth differed significantly between some of the different members of the genus.

The skull and mandibles of the Archaeopteryx in regular and UV light. O. Rauhut, LMU Munich

"The high degree of variation in the teeth is particularly striking," Oliver Rauhut, a paleontologist and professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at LMU and the study co-author, said in a press release. The arrangement of the teeth is different for each specimen, Rauhut explained.

He theorizes that this diversity could be due to differences in the specimen's diets. Like the finches in the Galapagos Islands, Rauhut explained, the different animals across the genus had evolved varied mouths.

Archaeopteryx, with its dinosaur claws, teeth and tail, and its well-developed bird feathers, represents an iconic turning point in evolution. Because this animal has some characteristics of theropod dinosaurs, and some of modern birds, it's the perfect example of a transitional fossil between the two groups of animals.