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Archaeopteryx, the Strange Ancient Creature

Archaeopteryx fossil incased in stone, Germany: ID 63404569 © Mikhailsh |

[Originally published by Christian Ryan as Archaeopteryx: Just a Weird Perching Bird?]

Scientists were in for a surprise when the fossilized skeleton of an unusual creature was discovered in 1861 at Bavarian, Germany’s Solnhofen Limestone. This site is famous for its exquisitely preserved fossils. This creature had the feathers of a bird, but it also had the clawed forelimbs, toothed jaw, and long, bony tail of a theropod (meat-eating) dinosaur. In 1863, Sir Richard Owen described it under the name Archaeopteryx, meaning “ancient wing.”

But to what group of animals did Archaeopteryx belong?

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Since birds are the only animals that have feathers today, Owen considered this creature to be an unusual type of bird.1 Most creationists have followed suit, arguing that Archaeopteryx is nothing more than an odd perching bird.2 But what kind of bird has a long, bony tail?

Let’s Get to Know the Ancient Wing

Archaeopteryx is unique because its perfectly preserved remains allow us to know much more about it than most extinct animals. It was about the size of an American crow and was a carnivore, hunting for animals smaller than itself.

Archaeopteryx also had an enlarged, retractable claw on its second toe, similar to that seen in velociraptor. Comparisons of its sclerotic (eye) bones to those of other birds and reptiles indicate that Archaeopteryx would have been active primarily during the day.3 Its feathers are so well-preserved that scientists can study the pigment-producing cells. These studies suggest that Archaeopteryx was at least partially black in color.4

As mentioned above, Archaeopteryx had a blend of reptilian and bird features. Its more “bird-like” characteristics include:

  • Feathers
  • Brain structure
  • Inner ear
  • Air sacs

Whereas its decidedly more “reptilian-like” characteristics include:

  • Toothed jaw
  • Long, bony tail
  • Gastralia (“belly ribs”)
  • Clawed forelimbs

It was once thought that Archaeopteryx had a reversed toe that would have allowed it to perch on branches like many birds today. Better preserved specimens revealed this not to be the case.5

Is Archaeopteryx Just a Bird?

The problem with assuming that Archaeopteryx was “just an unusual bird” is that it shares many features with animals that most would regard as not being birds. Majungasaurus, for example, was a mid-sized, featherless theropod. Yet, it had air sacs, much like modern birds do.6 Instead of trying to classify every animal with feathers as a bird, we ought to reconsider how we define the word “bird.”

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What Exactly is a Bird Anyway?

Archaeopteryx and pigeon comparison

Zoologist Dr. Marc Surtees has recently developed a set of new criteria to distinguish birds from non-birds:7

  • A sophisticated flow-through lung connected to air sacs
  • Lightweight, air-filled bones
  • A robust wing attachment site consisting of the wishbone, shoulder blade, and coracoid (a type of shoulder bone)
  • A hook-like extension of the coracoid called the acrocoracoid
  • Pygostyle (rod-like or blade-like bone at the end of the tail)
  • Brain with enlarged cerebellum and visual cortex

Dr. Surtees states that while some animals may have some of the features listed above, true birds should possess all of them. For example, despite having a sophisticated flow-through lung connected to air sacs, Majungasaurus was not a bird because it lacked many of the above traits. Based on these criteria, now-extinct toothed birds like Hesperornis and Ichthyornis, and of course, modern birds, can be officially classified as “true birds.”

Interestingly, Archaeopteryx is missing many of these criteria, including a pygostyle. This means that, based on these criteria, it is actually not a bird at all. This makes sense in light of recent research by creation paleontologists. While Archaeopteryx has proven difficult to classify, several analyses have placed it as a close relative of small, feathered dinosaurs like Velociraptor and the troodontids.8,9 This suggests that Archaeopteryx was, in fact, not a true bird at all.


We often charge our old earth colleagues with allowing their biases to cloud their interpretation of the data. But the reality is that we all have biases that may cloud the proper interpretation of scientific data. As far as Archaeopteryx is concerned, we have often been guided by the extra-biblical assumption that birds can be the only thing with feathers. This has made a mess of bird/dinosaur classification schemes.

There is no way to completely remove the existence of our biases. But we must always be willing to change our minds on a certain issue when either biblical or scientific data does not fit our initial perception. Archaeopteryx has taught us that God’s creation is still full of many wonderful (and feathered) mysteries left to solve.

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Written by New Creation

At New Creation, our goal is to empower our readers to think critically and make their own informed decisions about God’s methods and handiwork. We aim to do this by arming our readers with a wide-range of current hypotheses, theories, and research in the field of Biblical creation science and by providing free space for thought and discussion. We are a team of science students and writers committed to being a launching pad for scientific investigation in the realm of creation science. We strive to point people to technical research done by young-earth scientists and to showcase what active scientific model-building looks like.

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  1. Three thoughts concerning the feathered dinosaur idea. 1. Since we are made in the image of God, we have the innate ability to organize, classify and name things. Biblically I Cor 15:39 indicates that there are 4 broad categories with different flesh: man, beast, fish and birds. Today only birds have feathers, why would we assume it was different in the past?
    2. Only 11 or 12 archaeopteryx’s fossils have ever been found and they all came from the same limestone pit in Germany. The first one was discovered only 2 years after Darwin’s book was published – that just smells of fraud and there are many scholarly articles which agree
    3. It is used today as the link between reptiles and birds. We need to be very careful not to support something they may lead others away from the truth.

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