Paleontologists Unveil the 11th Archaeopteryx

Just in time for the 150th anniversary year of Archaeopteryx, paleontologists announce an 11th specimen of the dinosaur-like bird

The 11th skeleton of Archaeopteryx
The 11th skeleton of Archaeopteryx Photo by Helmut Tischlinger

For Archaeopteryx, 2011 has been a year of ups and downs. Paleontologists celebrated the 150th anniversary of when the iconic feathered dinosaur was named. But shortly afterwards, a controversial paper in Nature in July proposed that the creature—widely hailed as the first bird—was further removed from avian ancestry than previously thought. Now Archaeopteryx is back on the upswing. According to a press release circulated by the New Munich Trade Fair Centre in Germany, paleontologists now have an 11th specimen of the famous fossil creature to study.

Until this week, ten Archaeopteryx skeletons were known to paleontologists, not including the fossil feather the German paleontologist Hermann von Meyer used to give the animal its name. Peter Wellnhofer, the world’s foremost expert on the “urvogel,” detailed the backstory of each fossil in his comprehensive book Archaeopteryx: The Icon of Evolution. The London specimen and the Berlin specimen are the best known—particularly the latter, arguably one of the most visually stunning fossils ever found—but there’s also the busted-up Maxberg specimen, another that was initially confused for a pterosaur (the Haarlem specimen) and a slab known as the Solnhofen specimen that was originally thought to contain the skeleton of the small coelurosaurian dinosaur Compsognathus.

As far as I am aware, the new specimen does not have a name and has yet to be described in the literature, but this Archaeopteryx appears to be one of the more complete and well preserved of the lot. In fact, the preservation and position of the bones are reminiscent of the Thermopolis specimen I saw in Wyoming this past year, although this new Archaeopteryx is missing one forelimb and the skull. Don’t be fooled by the fact that, at first glance, the fossil looks a little jumbled up. If you start by following the tip of the tail (on the right), the articulated vertebral column leads to the hips and splayed legs before curving up and back in the classic dinosaur death pose. The arm is displaced below the hips but remains articulated.

We will have to wait for the descriptive paper to learn the important characteristics of this new find, as well as where the slab came from. But if you happen to be in the vicinity of the New Munich Trade Fair Centre in Germany, you can see the 11th Archaeopteryx for a limited engagement at “The Munich Show” from October 28-30.