The changing legs of Archaeopteryx

A favourite phrase of mine is that the Berlin Archaeopteryx is “the single most identifiable fossil in the world”. It is absolutely iconic in so many ways – birds, dinosaurs, feathers, flight, evolution, palaeontology and the history of science are all reflected in its past and present. There are probably more identifiable or recognisable things out there is a sense (T.rex being the most obvious candidate) but as a single entity, this one fossil must be far out in front. Even if someone cannot tell you that it is “the Berlin Archaeopteryx” they will still know what it is (that flying dinosaur thing) and will have seen it before and be able to recognise it. Just look at how often it is used literally as an icon on the cover of books, on internet pages, as a logo, in journals etc. For both the public and the scientific community it is immediately recognisable in way that even T. rex and Triceratops are not.

It might therefore be a surprise to some to learn just how much it has changed over the years. Unsurprisingly there are various small bits of damage that have accumulate over the years through accidents, preparation, casting and other endeavours but one big change has happened, which few people are probably aware of.

Yes, the Berlin Archaeopteryxused to have big and beautifully preserved feathers on the legs. It is no shock that they are present, feathers are common on the legs of extant birds and extinct ones, and there are certainly traces of leg feathers on other Archaeopteryx specimens even before the Thermopolis specimen surfaced. Still, even with the relatively poor quality of this photo, it is clear that the Berlin slab used to be graced by a superb set of preserved feathers on the legs.

Used to, is of course the operative phrase here – so what happened? Well sometime shortly after it’s discovery it was decided that the legs should be prepared free to better see the details and as a result the feathers were removed. There are of course all kinds of wrong going on here, they should have cast it first, taken some photos, and prepared only one leg not both, and even then, why were all the feathers removed and not just the proximal parts on the legs. Why it was even done at all is questionable given that other specimens did exist at the time with legs and no feathers which of course could be prepared without the same levels of damage. I doubt anyone knows exactly how and whythis occurred, records at the Humboldt back then are not the best understandably.

It is nice to see the original state of this amazing specimen. I can’t quite get my head around it properly I am so used to seeing just the ‘current’ incarnation that this version somehow looks wrong to my eyes, something very familiar but at the same time quite different. It is just a shame that this work was carried out at all, and if it was deemed essential that it was not catalogued properly so that the information was not lost. Instead all we are left with is a few photos that don’t really do it justice, though I suppose we should be grateful we at least have that much.

One final point to add here is that the discovery of the wonderful 4-winged Microraptor gui seemed to come as complete shock to everyone. In hindsight of course it really should not have done so since Archaeopteryx clearly has long flight feathers on the legs. Had the specimen not been absent from Western science for so long, and then had the leg feathers removed I can only assume we would have seen plenty of papers on the possible effects of leg feathers on the flight potential or Archaeopteryx and the evolution of flight, whereas of course these have only really come to the fore since Microraptor’s discovery. A rather odd quirk and a suggestion that we should be rather more diligent in checking the literature in the future, since the evidence is pretty undeniable, yet it really does appear the a bald-legged Archaeopteryx was considered the norm by researchers until only recently.

19 Responses to “The changing legs of Archaeopteryx”

  1. 1 Allen Hazen 26/10/2008 at 11:19 am

    So Archeopteryx had feathers on its legs: where exactly? From the photo it looks as if feathers are preserved along the tibiofibular, but the tarsus may have been bare (which, I guess, would be a good idea for walking on surfaces dirtier than polished linoleum!).

    Do you know the date of the photo?

    As for the general point… I’ve had friends and family in the art-historical and printing history areas, and THEY are familiar with the idea that you have to be careful about the “state” of a print (artists sometimes go back and add new scrathes to an etching plate, etc etc)… It’s disturbing more of an effort wasn’t made to (at the very least) RECORD the original state (though I guess we have to be thankful that a good photo was taken).

  2. 2 David Hone 26/10/2008 at 11:57 am

    Yes that is what it looks like certainly, they do lie on the tib-fib and not on the tarsometatarsus. The wings do seem to be preserved more often than other feathers in the various Archaeopteryx speciemns we have which implies a certain increase in preservational potential for them, though the other may simply have been prepared off by mistake. It’s hard enough preparaing out something from the fragile Solnhofen limstones without having to preserve and protect a simple impression in the layer that you do not even know is there, so it’s perfectly possible.

    The date of the photo, I have no idea. I asked Dave Unwin who was the curator of the specimen for many years and he did not even know a photo existed of it in this status, only as a drawing. Still, that fact that it is a photo (and quite a good one, if grainy) makes me think early 1900’s, but I don’t know, sorry.

    As for the lack of records, I think that palaeo was simply too new a subject and people had simply not cottoned onto the fact as to how rare and delicate these things are, or that decades and centrueis later we would still be finding out new information and details. It had been described and published, so they could do what they wanted with it if it meant they might learn something.

  3. 3 Zach Miller 27/10/2008 at 1:07 pm

    Nick Longrich had an excellent discussion about Archaeopteryx’s hindwings at SVP. I’d say more, but I won’t, and will only say “Screw you, Aeteogate!” 🙂

  4. 4 Diego 27/10/2008 at 8:17 pm

    It is ironic that you are making the point about how everyone can identify this fossil. When I was an undergrad I took a survey of animal diversity and the professor, a great entomologist but not so into vertebrates, used a slide of this fossil as an example of a pterosaur. After class I approached him and quietly pointed out that, “Professor, I think that’s Archaeopteryx, not a pterosaur…”

    Some years later, as a grad student, I was a TA in the same class with the same professor and he was still using the incorrect slide. So once again I pointed out the error. I wonder if he’s fixed it yet?

  5. 5 Laelaps 27/10/2008 at 9:33 pm

    I know Beebe reported on the hind-limb feathers of Archaeopteryx in his “Tetrapteryx” paper, citing earlier authors, as well. In fact, the hind limb feathers of Archaeopteryx were key to his idea that bird ancestors had gone through a four-winged parachuting phase first inspired by feathers he saw on a dove hatchling. You can see the paper via Google Books here;,M1

  6. 6 David Hone 28/10/2008 at 8:25 am

    Thanks for that Brian, most handy.

  7. 7 Augray 07/11/2008 at 2:44 am

    The photo is actually from 1880, and can be found in:

    Vogt, C. 1880. Archaeopteryx macrura, an Intermediate Form between Birds and Reptiles. Ibis 4:434-456.

    It’s plate XIII in that issue of Ibis. But apparently, this article is a translation of a paper from “Revue Scientifique, ser 2, ix. p.241 (13th Sept. 1879)”, which I haven’t yet had a chance to track down, so the picture might even be a bit older.

  8. 8 David Hone 07/11/2008 at 8:35 am

    Fascinating stuff, I had no idea it was that early. Thanks for the information.

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