Archaeopteryx Dinosaurs Could Fly But More Like Awkward Chickens Than Graceful Birds

An Archaeopteryx fossil being scanned with an x-ray beam. ESRF/Pascal Goetgheluck

It doesn't have the reputation of a Tyrannosaurus rex or the elegant neck of a brachiosaurus. But Archaeopteryx is still one of the most important dinosaurs that ever lived. Its fossils have taught scientists about how birds evolved from their ancestors. And now, paleontologists think they've solved one of the oldest mysteries about Archaeopteryx—whether or not it could fly.

It could, but not using quite the same mechanics as modern birds, according to a new paper published in the journal Nature Communications. A slightly different wing movement meant that it could likely fly only over short distances, like a modern chicken or pheasant.

The result might not have been the most, um, impressive flight, but it would have gotten the job done. Archaeopteryx was still experimenting with flight, Christian Foth, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland who wasn't involved in the new research, wrote in an email to Newsweek. "The results indicate that the flight of Archaeopteryx looked hectic rather than elegant, most likely performed during escape, hunting, or even mating."

Paleontologists have speculated for decades over whether Archaeopteryx could actually fly and if so how. But the new study was the first to successfully analyze the bone structure of Archaeopteryx specimens, other dinosaur fossils, and modern birds. Because Archaeopteryx fossils are incredibly valuable and can't be destroyed to check just one theory, the research relied on using an incredibly powerful beam of x-rays to form a picture of the hidden bone.

The team noticed that the wing bones of the Archaeopteryx specimens were actually pretty similar to bird bones—their walls were much thinner than in the bones of dinosaurs that kept their feet firmly on the ground. That said, the Archaeopteryx's shoulder joint is put together a little differently from those of modern birds, so the scientists think their wing movement was more forward and back, rather than up and down.

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The study shows that the evolution of flight among dinosaurs, first author Dennis Voeten, wrote in an email to Newsweek, "was not simply a straight line towards the flight of modern birds." Instead, it "involved an exotic diversity of alternative, experimental," said Voeten, paleontologist at the European Synchrotron that houses the x-ray beam, "and intermediate solutions that ultimately proved to be evolutionary dead-ends."

Foth thinks that this flight pattern makes a lot of sense for the dinosaur, which is believed to have lived on small islands with more shrubs than trees. Previous scholars have suggested Archaeopteryx may have glided, which is more challenging without a high-elevation launchpad. Instead, they probably spent most of their time on the ground, only taking flight when it seemed truly worth the hassle.