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Friday, July 6, 2007

Archaeopteryx

A model of Archaeopteryx lithographica on display at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
Archaeopteryx (meaning 'ancient feather') is the earliest and most primitive known avian to date. It lived in the late Jurassic Period around 155-150 million years ago in what is now southern Germany. At the time Archaeopteryx lived, Europe was an archipelago of islands in a shallow warm tropical sea, much closer to the equator than it is now. Archaeopteryx lived during the time of the dinosaurs, yet was set apart from them because of the inclusion of both avian and theropod dinosaur features. Similar in size and shape to a European Magpie, it bore broad, rounded wings and a long tail. Archaeopteryx could grow to about half a metre, or 1.6 feet in length. Its feathers resembled those of modern birds but Archaeopteryx was rather different from any bird known today, in that it had jaws lined with sharp teeth, three 'fingers' ending in curved claws and a long bony tail. These features, which are consistent with theropod dinosaurs, have made the Archaeopteryx a hot topic in the debate on evolution. Indeed, in 1862 the description of the first intact specimen of Archaeopteryx, just two years after Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, set off a firestorm of debate about evolution and the role of transitional fossils that endures to this day. The eleven fossils currently classified as Archaeopteryx are the oldest evidence of feathers on the planet and the only ones dated from Jurassic times. Furthermore, their advanced nature and placement suggest their origins must have been even earlier. All remains have been regarded by most as a single species, though this has been debated

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