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Dino-bird has power of flight

05 August 2004

Artist's impression of Archaeopteryx, © John Sibbick/Natural History Museum

Artist's impression of Archaeopteryx, © John Sibbick/ Natural History Museum, London 2005

Scientists at the Natural History Museum have discovered that the most ancient bird known, the 147-million-year-old Archaeopteryx , had a brain similar to a modern sparrow, eagle or parrot.

Using state-of-the-art technology, scientists have proved that Archaeopteryx could fly, suggesting birds started flying far earlier than scientists had previously thought.

The first fossilised Archaeopteryx lithographica, discovered in Germany in 1861, started a debate on the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds, as the small meat-eating bird had dinosaur-like features such as teeth and clawed hands,
but also had feathers.

One of the world's rare Archaeopteryx fossils, at the Natural History Museum, UK

One of the world's rare Archaeopteryx fossils, at the Natural History Museum, UK

Rare specimen

The Natural History Museum's Archaeopteryx is one of only seven found in the world.

CT scans

A team led by Dr Angela Milner, a palaeontologist at the Museum, conducted an X-ray computed tomography (CT) scan of the fossil specimen's 20 mm-long braincase.

3-D reconstruction

Computerised 3-D reconstructions where also created to investigate the anatomy of the brain in detail. The new evidence suggests that Archaeopteryx was already well equipped for flight.

Now that we know Archaeopteryx was capable of controlling the complex business of flying, this raises more questions,’ said Dr Angela Milner.

If flight was this advanced by the time Archaeopteryx was around, then were birds actually flying millions of years earlier than we'd previously thought?

Earlier fossils needed

As yet we have no earlier fossils to help us piece together this fascinating evolutionary story and this study has shown how much there is still to discover about when and how bird flight began.’

This project was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the University of Texas CT Unit and the National Science Foundation.