Archaeopteryx (photo)

Retinal neuroscientist and photographer Bryan Jones sends in this gorgeous shot of an archaeopteryx fossil displayed in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany.

"As a biologist, seeing this fossil represents something of a pilgrimage," says Bryan, "[Visiting this museum is] a journey that all biologists would benefit from making."

Snip from his blog post:

This particular sample was found in the Solnhofen limestone formation in Bavaria and is the basis for the link between the dinosaurs and the feathered birds. Archaeopteryx itself is a feathered theropod, but is though of as the oldest documented bird dating back approximately 150 million years ago.

The fossil was found in 1874 by Jakob Niemeyer who traded it to Johann Dorr for a cow. Johann then sold the fossil to Ernst Haberlein for 2,000 German Marks. This sale was then turned around to the founder of Siemens, Werner von Siemens for 20,000 German Marks for the University of Berlin which has provided this specimen to scientists around the world as the best preserved specimen found with elegant feathers and an exquisitely preserved skull.


  1. When they are chipping the stone away to get to the fossil (also stone), how do they know when to stop since the fossil and the stone appear to be pretty much the same?

    1.  They split the slabs and the fossils are revealed in the centre. The fossils usually divide unevenly, so one side has part of the skeleton and the other part of the slab has the rest. This second part is called the counterpart.
      The neck is twisted back like that because after death the ligament running along the back of the neck shortens. It’s a very common characteristic of dinosaur and bird fossils.

  2. The Solnhofen limestones formed at the bottom of shallow, rarely-disturbed lagoons. This made for very thin, very flat layering in the stone. This was quarried to make thin flat slabs for lithographic printing, hence the name Archaeopteryx lithographica. This also made for ideal fossil preservation, and the fossils tend to be in the soft spots between layers. This Archaeopteryx specimen is actually between two slabs – this one with most of the fossilized bones and the counterslab with at least the matching feather and bone impressions. This slab and the counterslab should align perfectly.

    The neck twist is extremely common in dinosaurian and avian fossils. I’m not sure how common it is outside the group, I hope an actual paleontologist can weigh in. I think it is because the back neck ligaments contract after death. I think it also occurs in modern birds.

    I believe most of the Solnhofen fossils are of marine life, and marine fossils were common enough that it was standard procedure to check for fossils at the quarries. I think there are also many more pterosaur fossils than Archaeopteryx fossils.

  3. I thought it was here on BoingBoing I read about this, but maybe not, however, I would just mention, you can see a very nice Archaeopteryx in Thermopolis, Wyoming at the Wyoming Dinosaur Museum.

    I have heard you should call to confirm it will be there when visiting as they loan it out semi often.

    I am going next month :)

    Edit: It was here I read about it

    Anyway, I just wanted to remind folks if they are interested, there is one in North America.

  4. Back in the bad old days of the DDR, my parents and I made the pilgrimage to East Berlin to visit this. We went mainly because we have a copy of it hanging on our wall at home; some company made casts of the fossil and then made paper positives of it. When we finally made it to the museum and made our way to the Archaeopteryx, we were stunned at how good our copy at home was – it looked exactly the same. In fact, it looked so much alike that we asked. And were told that this was, of course, a copy, that the original was way too valuable to be hanging in a museum, and was in fact locked up in the basement vault. I certainly hope that that’s no longer the case.

    1.  So is it wrong that I read half your message before I figured out you weren’t talking about “Dance, Dance, Revolution”? x.x

      P.S.  – that’s an amazing fossil; not sure what the scale is, though.  Is the critter 2 feet tall, or 10 feet tall?

  5. I’m amazed by how delicately this was obtained in the 19th century! Was it accidental, this particular fossil just split open like that?? Phoenix rising.

  6. Didn’t mean to imply magic! I was thinkin’ that for a fossil this exquisite to survive from then, that many others were probably unintentionally destroyed. And it would be great to end this comment on an up note.

  7. But remember, THIS. IS. NOT. A. TRANSITIONAL. FOSSIL.  I have been so assured by creationists on the interwebs.

    1.  Yeah – but did you read the whole thing on why Fred is wrong? There have been claims of fakery since it was found, but it has held up. With all the fossils from China with feathers, we now see feathers were around and Archy isn’t unique in that respect any more.

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