Zoom in on Archaeopteryx

Examine key features of interest to scientists

The spectacular Archaeopteryx lithographic fossil at the Natural History Museum was found in a very fine-grained limestone that preserved not only its skeleton, but also very clear imprints of wings and feathers. 

Examine the fossil for yourself, and find out about the features Archaeopteryx has in common with dinosaurs and others that are typical of birds.

Dinosaur features

The skeleton of Archaeopteryx is essentially that of a small meat-eating dinosaur (theropod) such as Deinonychus and Velociraptor.

Teeth of Archaeopteryx on the counterslab of the Natural History Museum's fossil

Close-up of the teeth of Archaeopteryx, preserved as part of the counterslab of the Museum's fossil.

Many of the dinosaur characteristics can be seen in the Museum’s specimen, often known as the London specimen. These include:

  • a lightly-built skeleton
  • very long arms
  • a half-moon-shaped bone in the wrist
  • a long bony tail
  • long legs
  • a simple shallow v-shaped wishbone (furcula)

Archaeopteryx also had teeth with serrated edges, another feature it shares with theropod dinosaurs. These can only be seen in the counterslab (the other, matching half of the fossil above), which is also cared for by the Museum.

In addition, Archaeopteryx had long hands with 3 fingers ending in claws. But these dinosaur features are not very well-preserved in the Museum’s specimen.

Bird features

Archaeopteryx also had features typical of birds, such as:

  • aerodynamic flight feathers with an asymmetric vane
  • wings with a flight feather arrangement just like modern birds
  • a reversed ‘perching’ toe on the hind foot

Although its feathered tail was once thought to be a bird character, several Chinese dinobirds (small feathered dinosaurs) are now known to have them.

Museum scientist Angela Milner and her team used CT scanning to analyse the 2cm-long braincase present in the Museum’s Archaeopteryx fossil, creating a 3D reconstruction of the brain from the scan data.

They discovered that Archaeopteryx had:

  • a bird-like brain with large areas that co-ordinated flight, balance and sight
  • semi-circular canals in the inner ear that were the same size and shape as in modern birds, suggesting that Archaeopteryx had a sense of balance comparable to modern birds