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Oregon Family Magazine

Picture This!

01/31/2019 22:44 ● By Ursula Crawford
We share our planet with over 10,000 different bird species, and more than 500 of them live right here in Oregon. But have you ever wondered how birds evolved in the first place, and where their feathers came from?

Back in the 1800s, scientists were wondering the same things. They had found fossils of the scaly, reptile-like dinosaurs that evolved into many of the animals we see on earth today, but no one could figure out where birds came into the picture.

That is, until one fateful day in 1861, in a dusty limestone quarry in southern Germany. An incredible discovery was made: a single fossilized feather, 150 million years old!

Never before had such a specimen been found, and it astounded scientists at the time. Soon after, people began to discover more fossils of these ancient feathered creatures, challenging the previous notion that all dinosaurs were scaly reptiles.

With the claws, teeth, and tail of a reptile and the wings and feathers of a bird, scientists called this creature Archaeopteryx  (meaning “ancient wing”) and considered it the evolutionary “missing link” between dinosaurs and birds.

Examining the shape of the fossilized feathers, scientists determined that Archaeopteryx may have used its feathered wings for flying, just like today’s birds. They also found that these feathers contained melanin, the same pigment that gives color to the skin, feathers, or fur of modern animals, including humans. The high levels of melanin found in Archaeopteryx fossils indicate that their feathers were black, making them strong and durable like the black feathers of a raven or a crow. 

Although there is a lot we can learn from the shape, size, and pigments in Archaeopteryx’s feathers, there is still a lot we don’t know. What color was the rest of its body? How did it behave? What sounds did it make? What did it eat?

This is where we need a little imagination. We may never be able to see this dino-bird in real life, but with the help of paleoartists—artists who create reconstructions of ancient animals—we can get a better idea of how Archaeopteryx might have looked, lived, and behaved hundreds of millions of years ago.

Since fossils are rarely whole skeletons, paleoartists sometimes have to make guesses about an animal based on just one fossilized bone or bone fragment. They start by conducting detailed research into all the known fossils that we have from a given animal. They also consult with paleontologists and other scientists who study the fossils today. Using this information, paleoartists can create sculptures, paintings, drawings, and digital renderings of animals that lived long ago. 

By Andrea Willingham, Museum of Natural and Cultural History

You can meet  Archaeopteryx at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History’s newest traveling exhibit, Dinosaurs Take Flight: The Art of Archaeopteryx, on view through May 19, 2019. Explore fossils and replica skeletons, check out amazing paleoart, and dive into interactive media to learn more about this mysterious feathered dinosaur and the artists who help bring it to life. The museum is located at 1680 E. 15th Avenue, on the UO campus. Museum hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Visit natural-history.uoregon.edu to learn more.