Archaeopteryx takes to the skies
Friday 24th March 2017
The fossil which proved the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds is on tour. PETER FROST explains why this scientific discovery is still relevant today
CHARLES DARWIN published his earth-shattering book On the Origin of Species in 1859. The book outlined the theory of evolution that is still, despite its compelling evidence, being argued about today, especially in the United States bible belt and even in President Donald Trump’s White House.
Part of Darwin’s argument predicted finding fossil evidence for the transitional stage between dinosaurs and what would become birds. At the time of his writing, Darwin predicted that evidence would be uncovered to prove his theory. Critics scoffed and noted the absence of any fossil evidence.
Then in 1861, just two years after his book was published, the fossil of a single feather was uncovered in the limestone layers of Solnhofen in Bavaria, southern Germany. It was clear evidence for the transitional fossil between dinosaurs and birds that Darwin had predicted. The great scientist was vindicated, to the dismay of his critics.
That same year more proof arrived when the first complete specimen of Archaeopteryx was discovered. That first skeleton, later to be known as “the London specimen,” was unearthed near Langenaltheim, Germany. It finally proved the link between dinosaurs and birds.
The fossil was given to local physician Karl Haberlein in return for medical services. Over the years, ten more fossils of Archaeopteryx have surfaced all in the same limestone layers of Solnhofen.
These fossil archaeopteryx have since become key evidence for the origin of birds, the transitional fossils debate and the confirmation of evolution.
The original German fossil was purchased by Britain in 1863 for £700 and was kept initially at the British Museum. When the Natural History Museum opened in South Kensington in 1881, the fossil became one of its most important exhibits.
Until this year it had never left the museum, but since March 18 it has been the star exhibit in a travelling exhibition at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo.
At first glance the fossil might seem to be just a ragtag assortment of bones, but on closer inspection you can understand why Archaeopteryx is so interesting and important.
Today, the thin limestone slabs that contain the bones of this pivotal creature are considered priceless. If one ever came to auction it would sell for millions of pounds.
The delicate stone has been carefully reinforced using a strong plastic resin but is still incredibly delicate. Museums officials are satisfied the iconic fossil will come to no harm in transit or during its time on display in Japan.
The Archaeopteryx fossil has beautiful impressions of feathers and wings — like a bird. But then it also displays the claws, the long bony tail and the serrated teeth more normally associated with dinosaurs.
Archaeopteryx was roughly the size of a small chicken, with broad wings that were rounded at the ends and a long tail compared to its body length.
Its feathers were very similar in structure to modern-day bird feathers. Unlike modern birds, Archaeopteryx had small teeth as well as a long bony tail, features which the species shared with other dinosaurs of the time.
Directors of modern dinosaur films may have used their computers to make Archaeopteryx into a soaring elegant flyer — something like a giant condor. In reality, it was probably an ungainly beast capable only of flapping flight from one low shrub to another.
In a world where more and more fundamentalist religious views are arguing against the science of evolution, it is important that the convincing evidence of fossils is made as widely known as possible.
President Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence were asked for their thoughts on evolution and Darwin. Pence told Congress he believed in teaching creationism in schools to balance out the theory of evolution.
In answer to a journalists question, he replied: “Do I believe in evolution? I embrace the view that God created the heavens and the Earth, the seas and all that’s in them.”
Pence wants the biblical story of creation taught in biology class alongside evolution.
With backwoodsman Trump as president, it will certainly happen.
Sadly the pair of them are in good company as many people in the United States agree with them.
While the majority of people in Europe and in many other parts of the world accept evolution, the United States lags behind.
Today, four in every 10 adults in the US believe that humans have existed in our present form since the beginning of time. In many religious groups, that number is even higher.
Perhaps then it is good news that the remarkable Archaeopteryx fossil is making the journey to Tokyo as just one of 300 exhibits from the collection of London’s Natural History Museum.
The travelling exhibition features all sorts of objects, including many animals that inspired Darwin directly and demonstrate the truth of evolution.
The artefacts range from a lion from the royal menagerie to an exquisite glass model of an octopus. All have a fascinating science backstory.
“Science is a global endeavour fuelled by wonder and curiosity. So it has been an ambition for us to share these extraordinary treasures with a wider audience,” Natural History Museum director Sir Michael Dixon told us.
“They are the essence of the scientific exploration that inspired pioneers and continues today at the Natural History Museum.”
Other destinations for this exciting touring exhibition beyond Japan will be announced in due course, but I doubt they will be welcome in Trump and Pence’s Washington.