'Archaeopteryx' Dinosaur Had a Completely Unknown Way of Flying

Tuesday, 13 March 2018 - 8:17PM
Tuesday, 13 March 2018 - 8:17PM
'Archaeopteryx' Dinosaur Had a Completely Unknown Way of Flying
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While they're not as iconic as pterodactyls, one of the more popular winged dinosaurs is the Archaeopteryx, and for good reason.

Don't let that mouthful of a name throw you off - Archaeopteryx is an important Jurassic-era creature, a sort of missing link between modern birds and the increasingly bird-like dinosaurs. Despite its time period, it's very similar to more modern magpies or ravens even though it still retains dinosaur-like features such as sharp teeth, clawed fingers, and bony tails.

For the longest time, paleontologists looked into whether Archaeopteryx was flightless despite its wings (like modern emus, or penguins), or if it could glide or even achieve full flight. New research published in Nature Communications points to Archaeopteryx being more than capable of active flight, but it used a method that's completely alien to modern fowls. Essentially, this isn't your average pigeon. 

Using a non-invasive method for scanning fossils called "synchrotron microtomography", a research team at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France was able to create three-dimensional models of an Archaeopteryx fossil's interior, allowing them to get a much closer look at the dino's inner working without damaging the fossil.

They found that even though the fossilized Archaeopteryx had a mostly ideal bone structure for flight, it had a primitive shoulder structure that's much less advanced that what's found in modern birds. It's tough to imagine how a bird could fly with simple shoulders like that, but everything else about the skeleton matched up with flight-friendly bone structures. Archaeopteryx likely flew, but it's not clear how.

According to ESRF's Dennis Voeten, a lead author on the study, who said the following in an official statement:

Opening quote
"We immediately noticed that the bone walls of Archaeopteryx were much thinner than those of earthbound dinosaurs but looked a lot like conventional bird bones. Data analysis furthermore demonstrated that the bones of Archaeopteryx plot closest to those of birds like pheasants that occasionally use active flight to cross barriers or dodge predators, but not to those of gliding and soaring forms such as many birds of prey and some seabirds that are optimised for enduring flight."
Closing quote

More studies will need to happen before any solid theories could take off (excuse the pun). Fossils like these are of course valuable, and non-invasive techniques like the one used here are difficult but essential to learning more about these dinosaurs. There's still plenty more to be discovered about dinosaurs in general, because we're still working on better ways to study the fossils without breaking them.

Short of bringing an Archaeopteryx back to life, Jurassic Park style, and watching how it flies, methods like these are the best we have.
Science News