New species of 'missing link' between dinosaurs and birds identified

October 25, 2018, University of Manchester
Credit: University of Manchester

Known as the 'Icon of Evolution' and 'the missing link' between dinosaurs and birds, Archaeopteryx has become one of the most famous fossil discoveries in Palaeontology.

Now, as part of an international team of scientists, researchers at The University of Manchester have identified a of Archaeopteryx that is closer to modern birds in evolutionary terms.

Dr. John Nudds, from the University's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and the team have been re-examining one of the only 12 known specimens by carrying out the first ever synchrotron examination, a form of 3-D X-ray analysis, of an Archaeopteryx.

Thanks to this new insight, the team says that this individual Archaeopteryx fossil, known as 'specimen number eight,' is physically much closer to a modern bird than it is to a reptile. Therefore, it is evolutionary distinctive and different enough to be described as a new —Archaeopteryx albersdoerferi.

The research, which is being published in journal Historical Biology, says that some of the differing skeletal characteristics of Archaeopteryx albersdoerferi include the fusion of cranial bones, different pectoral girdle (chest) and wing elements, and a reinforced configuration of carpals and metacarpals (hand) bones.

These characteristics are seen more in modern flying birds and are not found in the older Archaeopteryx lithographica species, which more resembles reptiles and .

Specimen number eight is the youngest of all the 12 known specimens by approximately half a million years. This age difference in comparison to the other specimens is a key factor in describing it as a new species.

Dr. Nudds explains: "By digitally dissecting the fossil we found that this specimen differed from all of the others. It possessed skeletal adaptations which would have resulted in much more efficient flight. In a nutshell we have discovered what Archaeopteryx lithographica evolved into—i.e. a more advanced bird, better adapted to flying—and we have described this as a new species of Archaeopteryx."

Reconstruction of Archaeopteryx albersdoerferi by Zhao Chuang under supervision of Martin Kundrát. Reprinted with permission from Zhao Chuang and PNSO, original copyright 2017. Credit: Zhao Chuang

Archaeopteryx was first described as the 'missing link' between reptiles and birds in 1861 – and is now regarded as the link between dinosaurs and . Only 12 specimens have ever been found and all are from the late Jurassic of Bavaria, now Germany, dating back approximately 150 million years.

Lead author, Dr. Martin Kundrát, from the University of Pavol Jozef Šafárik, Slovakia, said: "This is the first time that numerous bones and teeth of Archaeopteryx were viewed from all aspects including exposure of their inner structure. The use of synchrotron microtomography was the only way to study the specimen as it is heavily compressed with many fragmented bones partly or completely hidden in limestone".

Dr. Nudds added: "Whenever a missing link is discovered, this merely creates two further missing links—what came before, and what came after! What came before was discovered in 1996 with the feathered dinosaurs in China. Our new species is what came after. It confirms Archaeopteryx as the first bird, and not just one of a number of feathered theropod dinosaurs, which some authors have suggested recently. You could say that it puts Archaeopteryx back on its perch as the first bird!"

Explore further: The Archaeopteryx that wasn't

More information: Martin Kundrát et al. The first specimen of Archaeopteryx from the Upper Jurassic Mörnsheim Formation of Germany, Historical Biology (2018). DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2018.1518443

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6 comments

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24volts
2 / 5 (1) Oct 25, 2018
I wonder which if any modern birds are the descendants of those.
rrwillsj
2 / 5 (1) Oct 26, 2018
Is there enough DNA left in the remains to be tested against Modern Birds?
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Oct 26, 2018
I wonder which if any modern birds are the descendants of those.

Raptors?
rrwillsj - looking at the pic, I would not ask that question...
rrwillsj
not rated yet Oct 27, 2018
Maybe not yet? But perhaps improvements in future tech might make it possible?

And I do not mean anything as silly as acquiring a complete, undamaged DNA sample. For recreating or reproducing.

I mean, enough chromosomal pattern to try to match against some portion of the chromosomal pattern from modern birds.

While raptors seems a reasonable guess. I would not be surprised at all, if partial matches linked to an obscure, out-of-the-way avian population such as penguins.
torbjorn_b_g_larsson
4 / 5 (4) Oct 28, 2018
I wonder which if any modern birds are the descendants of those.


All of them in the sense that they were close to the stem bird root, but also none in that the ancestors were also close - it was unlikely to be a perfect overlap (i.e. not just one species in the link spanning the non-avian to avian transition).

Is there enough DNA left in the remains to be tested against Modern Birds?


The current oldest useful DNA is the 0.4 - 0.5 Myrs old Atapuerca (IIRC) hominins. And those are from unconsolidated deposits in temperate caves. These fossils are 300 times older, and from open terrain sediments.

There are potential amino acid fragments that have been used to derive genetic sequences from non-avian dinosaurs at about 1/2 - 1/3 the age of the discussed fossils. Obviously the codon (triplet code) degenerate sequence isn't as useful as the raw DNA sequence, but it can still be used for phylogenies.

"Recreating"? Pipe dream, even with 100 year old samples!
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (1) Oct 28, 2018
@24v
I wonder which if any modern birds are the descendants of those
to piggyback on Torbjorn

from what I can tell, they belonged to the group Avialae which is the ancestor of all modern birds.
https://www.ncbi....4726217/

see also - this chart: https://en.wikipe...volution

here is also a good PlosOne study: https://journals....390-g005

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