Fossil of oldest bird to go on show in new Museum gallery

20 November 2011

The fossil that confirmed Darwin’s theory of evolution, Archaeopteryx, will be displayed for the first time in a new gallery called Treasures, opening at the Natural History Museum in November 2012.

Painting of how Archaeopteryx may have looked

Painting of how Archaeopteryx may have looked 147 million years ago © John Sibbick / Natural History Museum

The fossil Archaeopteryx lithographica shows both bird and reptile features and was discovered just two years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species. 

The fossil became a key piece of evidence for the origin of birds and the confirmation of evolution and is known by some as the Mona Lisa of natural history.

It is not a replica or cast that is going on display, but the real fossil. The fossil is the official representative of the Archaeopteryx lithographica species, and is known as the type. When scientists need to identify other similar animals they refer to the type specimen for comparison

Archaeopteryx lithographica will be centre stage in the permanent Treasures gallery that will showcase the very best of the Museum’s world-renowned collection.

‘Each specimen tells its own unique story, but the role of Archaeopteryx in evolutionary science is profound,' says Sharon Ament, Museum Director of Public Engagement.

'As the type specimen it could be said to be the Natural History Museum’s equivalent of the Louvre’s Mona Lisa. Because of it’s history, it's scientific significance and the sheer beauty of its features captured in fine detail it has a real wow-factor. 

'Treasures will bring together our most amazing specimens, highlighting not only their scientific value but also their historical, social and cultural worth. It will be a snapshot of the depth, variety and value of our collection.’

Archaeopteryx (meaning ancient wing) lived 147 million years ago during the late Jurassic Period. It had a bird-like feathered tail and wings along with a reptilian long bony tail, teeth and three claw-like fingers. 

The discovery of this fossil in 1861 was a breakthrough, giving the first snapshot of evolution in action between two major groups. It later became a key piece of evidence in demonstrating that birds are the descendents of dinosaurs

Treasures gallery
This dinosaur tooth helped inspire the idea that giant reptiles once walked the Earth

This dinosaur tooth helped inspire the idea that giant reptiles once walked the Earth. It will be on display in the new Treasures Cadogan Gallery.

The Treasures gallery will be at the very heart of the Museum, located at the head of the grand staircase in the Central Hall. 

Other treasures going on show will include dinosaur teeth discovered by Mary Ann Mantell, 10 times larger than the teeth of modern reptiles. These teeth inspired one of the biggest ideas in evolutionary history – that giant reptiles once walked the Earth.

Another treasure to be on show will be Darwin's On the Origin of Species – a first edition of this groundbreaking book, which radically challenged the creationist beliefs of the day.

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