Friday, 23 December 2011

Stuffing the dinosaur at Christmas...

One in particular put Solnhofen on the map: Archaeopteryx, long famous as the “first true bird.” A single feather was discovered in 1860, a tantalizing glimpse of the creature it fell from. Beginning the very next year, a series of Archaeopteryx fossils began to come to light, at an irregular rate, and eleven specimens are currently recognized (one from only a few months ago). From its many dinosaurian skeletal features, its long bony tail, and the fine teeth in its jaws, Archaeopteryx might easily have been identified as a small theropod dinosaur, and indeed an amateur mistakenly classified one specimen as the small predatory dinosaur Compsognathus. However, the marvelous preservation afforded by the Solnhofen limestone has given us specimens of Archaeopteryx surrounded by imprints of their feathers, showing that they looked rather like a modern magpie in their plumage. Wing feathers are asymmetrical like those of modern birds’ flight feathers, showing adaptation for aerodynamic use. So detailed are some of the fossils that we can even detect the fine structure of some of these feathers, showing for instance that the fibers of the large flight feathers of Archaeopteryx were organized via the barb-and-barbule arrangement that makes modern bird feathers so stable and structurally effective, despite their lightweight and delicate construction.
Several years ago I first visited the Humboldt Museum (Museum für Naturkunde) in Berlin, the home of arguably the most beautiful Archaeopteryx fossil in the world. Discovered in 1876or 1877, it lies on its back with its wings widespread, tail pointing down and head swung over its back. More important, the arms (or, should I say, wings) and tail are surrounded by stunningly clear impressions of feathers. If I had the opportunity to save any single fossil in the world, it would be this one. It is simply stunning.
The roast turkey that many of you might well partake on December 25th, is a direct descendant of a distant maniraptoran theropod dinosaur.  The expression “as rare as hen’s teeth” is based upon the reality of socketed teeth growing in the jaws of birds, courtesy of their ancestral toothy theropod dinosaur gene being activated and socketed teeth growing during the chicken’s development. However, you don’t need ‘hens teeth’ to make your turkey a dinosaur…as you tuck into your meal, take time to nibble the ‘arm’ to reveal the fingers, often still tipped with tiny claws. As you pull the wish-bone (fused clavicles) think of Velociraptor and T. rex…who also share this very theropod character. Its food for thought, that 65 million years ago, it was probably our ancestors that were on the menu for the turkeys ancestors…vengeance is a dish best served 65 million years later!