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.