Old Earth Ministries Online Earth History Curriculum

Presented by Old Earth Ministries (We Believe in an Old Earth...and God!)

This curriculum is presented free of charge for use by homeschooling families.

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Chapter 10 - The Jurassic Period

Lesson 52: Species In-Depth: Archaeopteryx


     Archaeopteryx is the earliest and most primitive bird known. The name derives from the Ancient Greek ἀρχαῖος (archaios) meaning "ancient", and πτέρυξ (pteryx), meaning "feather" or "wing". 

     Archaeopteryx lived in the late Jurassic Period around 150–145 million years ago, in what is now southern Germany during a time when Europe was an archipelago of islands in a shallow warm tropical sea, much closer to the equator than it is now.

     Fossil specimens indicate that Archaeopteryx could grow to about 0.5 meters (1.6 ft) in length. Despite its small size, broad wings, and inferred ability to fly or glide, Archaeopteryx has more in common with small theropod dinosaurs than it does with modern birds. In particular, it shares the following features with the deinonychosaurs (dromaeosaurs and troodontids): jaws with sharp teeth, three fingers with claws, a long bony tail, hyperextensible second toes ("killing claw"), feathers (which also suggest homeothermy), and various skeletal features.


Chapter 10 - The Jurassic Period


 Lesson 49 - Jurassic Overview

 Lesson 50 - Morrison Formation

 Lesson 51 - Plesiosaurs

 Lesson 52 - Species In-Depth - Archaeopteryx




Archaeopteryx - The Berlin Specimin  (Picture Source)

     The features above make Archaeopteryx a clear candidate for a transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds.  Transitional fossils are supposed to indicate evolution from one species into another.  For Christians, this is a matter of debate.  Many old earth creationists believe God created the species with the process of evolution, whereas believe God created each species as a unique individual, not evolved from other species.  Whatever form of old earth creationism you believe in, Archaeopteryx remains an example of one of the oldest birds in the fossil record.


      Archaeopteryx plays an important role not only in the study of the origin of birds but in
Archaeopteryx Size Comparison
Size comparison of 8 specimins to a human (Picture Source)
 the study of dinosaurs.  The first complete specimen of Archaeopteryx was announced in 1861, only two years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and it became a key piece of evidence in the debate over evolution.  Archaeopteryx seemed to confirm Darwin's theories and has since become a key piece of evidence in the origin of birds and transitional fossils debate. Indeed, further research on dinosaurs from the Gobi Desert and China has since provided more evidence of a link between Archaeopteryx and the dinosaurs, such as the Chinese feathered dinosaurs.  Archaeopteryx is close to the ancestry of modern birds, and it shows most of the features one would expect in an ancestral bird. However, it may not be the direct ancestor of living birds, and it is uncertain how much evolutionary divergence was already present among other birds at the time.


     The only specimens of Archaeopteryx that have been discovered come from the Solnhofen limestone in Bavaria, southern Germany, which is a lagerstätte, a rare and remarkable geological formation known for its superbly detailed fossils. Over the years, nine more fossils of Archaeopteryx have surfaced. Despite variation among these fossils, most experts regard all the remains that have been discovered as belonging to a single species, though this is still debated.

     Many of these eleven fossils include impressions of feathers—among the oldest (if not the oldest) direct evidence of feathers. Moreover, because these feathers are an advanced form (flight feathers), these fossils are evidence that feathers had been evolving for quite some time.




     The richness and diversity of the Solnhofen limestones in which all specimens of
Museum rendition of what Archaeopteryx may have looked like (Picture Source)
 Archaeopteryx have been found have shed light on an ancient Jurassic Bavaria strikingly different from the present day. The latitude was similar to Florida, though the climate was likely to have been drier, as evidenced by fossils of plants with adaptations for arid conditions and lack of terrestrial sediments characteristic of rivers. Evidence of plants, though scarce, include cycads and conifers while animals found include a large number of insects, small lizards, pterosaurs and Compsognathus.

     The excellent preservation of Archaeopteryx fossils and other terrestrial fossils found at Solnhofen indicates that they did not travel far before becoming preserved. The Archaeopteryx specimens found are likely therefore to have lived on the low islands surrounding the Solnhofen lagoon rather than been corpses that drifted in from farther away. Archaeopteryx skeletons are considerably less numerous in the deposits of Solnhofen than those of pterosaurs, of which seven genera have been found. The islands that surrounded the Solnhofen lagoon were low lying, semi-arid and sub-tropical with a long dry season and little rain. The closest modern analogue for the Solnhofn conditions is said to be Orca Basin in the northern Gulf of Mexico, though that is much deeper than the Solnhofn lagoons. The flora of these islands was adapted to these dry conditions and consisted mostly of low (3 m [10 ft]) shrubs. Contrary to reconstructions of Archaeopteryx climbing large trees, these seem to have been mostly absent from the islands; few trunks have been found in the sediments and fossilized tree pollen is also absent.

     The lifestyle of Archaeopteryx is difficult to reconstruct and there are several theories regarding it. Some researchers suggest that it was primarily adapted to life on the ground, while other researchers suggest that it was principally arboreal. The absence of trees does not preclude Archaeopteryx from an arboreal lifestyle; several species of extant bird live exclusively in low shrubs. Various aspects of the morphology of Archaeopteryx point to either an arboreal or ground existence, the length of its legs, the elongation in its feet; and some authorities consider it likely to have been a generalist capable of feeding in both shrubs, open ground and even alongside the shores of the lagoon. It most likely hunted small prey, seizing it with its jaws if it was small enough or with its claws if it was larger.


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Source: Archaeopteryx