I’ve spent the last week in Berlin for my birthday, and although the highlight was visiting the zoo (seeing, amongst many other things, my very first manatees), I also went to the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde (Natural History Museum). The museum is not only home to the largest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the world but also to a beautifully preserved specimen of an ancient proto-bird called Archaeopteryx.
The story of Archaeopteryx begins in 1859. Charles Darwin’s now-famous book, The Origin of Species, had just been published and it caused great controversy. Though he quickly gained many followers, Darwin also had a lot of enemies, especially the Creationists who believed every word of the Bible and the story of Creation. What he really needed was evidence that one kind of animal might evolve into another, but the fossils record was somewhat thin on the ground in that department.
Then, fortuitously, his luck changed.
Feathers and Forgeries
In 1860, a strange fossilised feather was uncovered in a quarry in Germany, near Solnhofen. A year later, the first skeleton of the animal that would once have possessed such a feather was also found. Living around 150 million years ago in the Jurassic Period, the creature had unmistakably reptilian features, but it looked suspiciously like a bird. It had a feathered tail and fully-feathered wings, although both wings had separate fingers on the end, each of which had a sharp claw. The head of the specimen, sadly, was missing.
This was a ground-breaking discovery, not only because it predated all other birds known at the time by many millions of years, but it also seemed to show a halfway point between bipedal reptiles, such as small meat-eating dinosaurs, and flying birds. The fossil was sold to the Natural History Museum in London, where it still remains to this day. Richard Owen, the man who had coined the term ‘dinosaur’ a few years previously (it means ‘terrible lizard’), was intrigued by this primitive-looking bird and gave it the name Archaeopteryx, which means ‘ancient wing’ in Greek.
Owen, however, was not a great believer in the theory of natural selection as proposed by Darwin. He was adamant that Archaeopteryx was a true bird – the first of its kind – but Darwin and his followers argued (quite rightly, we now know) that it was actually an intermediate form. Half-bird, half-reptile, it was a creature in the middle of making the transition from one to the other, a so-called ‘missing’ link. Darwin’s supporters claimed that this was unequivocal proof that birds evolved from reptiles at some point in the past. Owen refused to believe this, but he still kept the fossil in his museum.
The discovery of Archaeopteryx helped embed the concept of evolution by natural selection into the public consciousness at the time but, of course, Richard Owen wasn’t the only disbeliever around. Even today, there are critics. One such opponent was Fred Hoyle, an astronomer who not only rejected the idea of the Big Bang, but also believed that life had originated from outer space and that natural selection was false. Perhaps realising that the existence of Archaeopteryx proved otherwise, Hoyle declared in 1986 that the fossil was a man-made fake. The Museum of Natural History spent the next year proving conclusively that the fossil was indeed the real deal.
Since the term ‘missing link’ was popularised, many transitional fossils have been found that seem to illustrate the concept of one species, or group, evolving into another – half-fish, half-amphibian, or half-reptile, half-mammal, for example – but Archaeopteryx is still one of the most ‘in between’ animals out there.
Perhaps more importantly, though, it also shows us that the dinosaurs didn’t necessarily all suddenly die out 65 million years ago. Their direct descendents are all around us today: the birds.