Archaeopteryx lithographica inhabited the Earth in the late Jurassic period, around 150 million years ago. Yet evidence of the species’ existence is constantly fluttering about: birds. “Dinosaurs Take Flight,” a new touring exhibit at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, features several replica fossils of archaeopteryx — the first dinosaur ever discovered with wings.
Edward Davis, paleontological collections manager for the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, which is located near Global Scholars Hall, said archaeopteryx is an important milestone in dinosaur evolution. He said it was the first fossilized creature recognized as a “missing link” in support of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
“It is also an important extinct species in its own right as its fossils preserve important details about the dinosaurs that were at the point of evolving flight,” Davis wrote in an email while on a research trip in Minnesota. “Exceptional preservation, plus important evolutionary transition, make it one of the most important vertebrate fossil species.”
Archaeopteryx is part of the dinosaur suborder “theropoda,” the same suborder as the well-known Tyrannosaurus rex. Davis said archaeopteryx feathers were not unique — most theropods are now believed to have had feathers, and he added it is possible all dinosaurs were feathered.
“We’re most sure about the theropods, though,” Davis said. “So your classic meat-eating raptor from Jurassic Park should have had turkey-like feathering.”
A common misconception that Davis brought up is the notion that dinosaurs are extinct — they are not. Birds are direct descendants of winged dinosaurs like archaeopteryx.
“In fact, estimates of dinosaur diversity in the Cretaceous [era], 66 million years ago — compared to estimates of bird diversity today — suggest that the dinosaurs have their greatest diversity now,” Davis said. “That is, there are more bird species today than all dinosaur species during the ‘Age of Dinosaurs.’”
Fossils of organisms that are believed to have lived in the same environment as archaeopteryx are also displayed. Besides the fossil replicas and fossils on display, the exhibit also features work from six different paleoartists. Paleoartists are tasked with taking fossils and other available scientific data about an extinct species and artistically recreating the animal. One of the six artists, Gary Staab, already has his mammoth sculptures on display outside of the museum.
Kristin Strommer, the museum’s director of communications and marketing, said a paleoartist's job is challenging because new data constantly emerges that makes previous renderings of an animal obsolete.
“That artistic license is there,” Strommer said, “but so too is a great willingness to go back and adjust.”
The exhibit even includes childhood work of some of the paleoartists, which Strommer said she enjoys because those works tell a story of artistic evolution — a convenient juxtaposition with the archaeopteryx fossils.
The exhibit’s “grand opening weekend” begins this Saturday when “Dinosaurs Take Flight” opens to the public. Strommer said, in addition to exploring the exhibit, visitors will have a chance to participate in hands-on activities, including dinosaur crafting and paleontology puzzles.
“The crafts are all ages,” Strommer said. “We have a lot of UO students that get more into our craft table than families do.”
The exhibit, which is put together by Silver Plume Exhibitions and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, is on display until May 19. Strommer said she appreciates how the exhibit is able to cohesively balance art and science in the exhibit and hopes visitors value the detail and level or preservation of the fossils.
“It is unbelievable the level of detail in these preservations,” Strommer said. “You can see the fine detail of feathers in these species from the upper Jurassic [era]. So we’re talking about just extraordinary preservation conditions.”
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