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 cutting-edge technology, a Museum-led team of experts has delved into the inner workings of its brain and inner ear for the first time and proved that Archaeopteryx could fly. This suggests that birds started flying far earlier than scientists previously thought.
A team led by Dr Angela Milner, a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum, conducted an X-ray computed tomography (CT) scan of the 20mm-long braincase of the Museum’s own Archaeopteryx fossil, at the University of Texas at Austin. Back at the Museum they created computerised 3-D reconstructions to investigate the anatomy of the brain in detail.
Using this state-of-the-art technology, the team was able to determine the brain’s shape, size and volume and create a reconstruction of the inner ear for the first time. The studies showed that the Archaeopteryx brain and inner ear had very bird-like proportions. Measurements taken of the organs of balance inside the ear, known as semi-circular canals, proved to be very close in size to those of today’s birds. This 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 of the Natural History Museum. ‘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? 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.’
The discovery in Germany in 1861 of the first fossilised Archaeopteryx lithographica kicked off a debate on the link between dinosaurs and birds that continues to this day. The small meat-eating bird had many dinosaur-like features such as teeth and clawed hands, but also feathers. The Museum owns this specimen, one of only seven in the world, and it is the most valuable single fossil in its collection. Due to its fragility, value and constant demand by visiting scientists from around the world, Archaeopteryx is usually kept in environmentally controlled conditions where it is accessible for research study.
This project was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the University of Texas CT Unit and the National Science Foundation.
A paper entitled The avian nature of the brain and inner ear of Archaeopteryx will be published in the journal Nature on 5 August.
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Notes for editors
The Natural History Museum is open Monday - Saturday
10.00-17.50, Sunday -11.00-17.50
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Issued August 2004