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The Evolution of Birds and Flight
Archaeopteryx has been at the heart of many evolutionary debates: from Darwin's theory of evolution, which first predicted the existence of transitional animals like Archaeopteryx, to the evolution of flight in modern birds.
A link between dinosaurs and birds was first established by Thomas Huxley in the last century. The first modern study establishing a firm link between birds (Archaeopteryx) and a group of two-legged dinosaurs called theropods was by Yale University paleontologist John Ostrom in 1976. Ostrom made a detailed comparison of the prehistoric bird's skeleton and skull to that of the theropods. "This was the landmark study that showed that Archaeopteryx is related to theropod dinosaurs," says Rieppel.
In the last 10 years, several new species of prehistoric birds have been found in areas ranging from Africa to China, providing more and more evidence of ancestral ties with dinosaurs. Archaeopteryx is still the oldest known and most primitive bird.
And although the bird-dinosaur link is now widely accepted (some scientists call birds "living dinosaurs"), a handful of skeptics insist that dinosaurs and birds evolved separately from a common reptilian ancestor.
"Ever since Archaeopteryx was found, it was clear that birds had a lot to do with reptiles," says Rieppel. "New findings are making the transition of reptiles to birds a rewarding field to work in. Now the gaps are starting to fill in, and it's getting more and more interesting."
One of the great unsolved riddles of Archaeopteryx is: Could the world's oldest known bird fly?
Each feather on an Archaeopteryx wing is arranged asymmetrically along the shaft, just like modern birds that fly. (Birds that are flightless have feathers that are arranged symmetrically.) Archaeopteryx may have been capable of active flight. At the very least, the prehistoric bird was probably able to glide short distances after jumping off a tree branch.
"This question of whether Archaeopteryx could fly or not relates to the origin of feathers," says Flynn. "Did they evolve for flight, or first for insulation, and only later becoming further adapted to enable flight? Archaeopteryx is critical to understanding the evolution of many features found in modern birds."
Admission to the Museum
Admission to The Field Museum is $7 for adults; $4 for children ages 3-17, students with an ID, and seniors. Admission is free on Wednesdays. Admission to Archaeopteryx: The Bird That Rocked the World is free with general Museum admission. The Field Museum is located on Lake Shore Drive at Roosevelt Road and is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily. For general museum information, call (312) 922-9410 or (312) 341-9299 TDD for the hearing impaired.
For travel information, call the Illinois Tollway System at (312) 242-3620; Illinois Department of Transportation at (312) 368-4636; Illinois State Police at (708) 294-4400; or CTA/RTA at (312) 836-7000. The Museum is serviced daily by the CTA buses #146, #6 and #12. In addition, on weekdays and holidays year-round, the CTA bus #10 also services the Museum.
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