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Fossil Study Confirms Archaeopteryx Flew Like a Bird

Image: Archaeopteryx
A newly unveiled Archaeopteryx fossil, shown here under ultraviolet light, preserves the imprint of feathers surrounding the body and legs as well as the wings and tail. The scale bar at lower left indicates 2 inches (5 centimeters) in length. Helmut Tischlinger et al. / BSPG via Nature

Scientists on Wednesday described the best-preserved fossil of Archaeopteryx ever found, revealing the whole plumage in great detail including a feather arrangement fully capable of flight and curious "feather trousers" on the legs.

The level of preservation is due to the fossil's fine-grained limestone, formed in an ancient lagoon. It was found by a private collector in northern Bavaria in Germany.

Archaeopteryx lived 150 million years ago, but its plumage in many ways resembled today's birds.

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The fossil showed that contour feathers — the basic vaned, quill-like feathers of a bird — covered its entire body up to the head as in modern birds. The shafts of the wing feathers were comparable in strength to those of modern birds. And the plumage of the hind limbs looked like that of modern birds of prey like falcons and eagles.

"Since its first discovery in the 1860s, Archaeopteryx has been the object of many debates in relation to bird evolution, especially flight and feather evolution. There were debates if it was ground-dwelling or arboreal, if it could fly or not," said paleontologist Oliver Rauhut of the Bayerische Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Geologie in Munich.

Paleontologist Christian Foth of the same institution said some scientists had suggested the vanes of its feathers were too weak to support flight, but the new fossil backs the idea Archaeopteryx was completely capable of flying.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

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-Will Dunham, Reuters