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A German Treasure Comes To America
Six more specimens of Archaeopteryx were found in 1876, 1951, 1956, 1970, 1987 and 1992 - all in the Solnhofen limestone quarries of Germany. The seventh and most recent find will be exhibited at The Field Museum.
"When you start giving a fossil numbers, you know how rare it is," says John Flynn, chairman of the Museum's geology department. "Only three of the Archaeopteryx have individual feathers clearly preserved in the stone; the specimen coming to Chicago is one of them."
None of the fossils has ever been exhibited outside of Europe. Flynn says the exhibit was made possible through close working relationships between Field Museum curators and their German colleagues. "The international collaborations we have are incredibly strong," says Flynn. "Science tends to transcend political boundaries."
Peter Wellnhofer, an expert on Archaeopteryx and pterosaurs (flying reptiles) and curator for the State Museum of Paleontology and Historical Geology in Bavaria, will accompany the Archaeopteryx fossil on its journey to America. he will be in Chicago for the duration of the exhibit and will give a public talk about the prehistoric bird at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 18 at The Field Museum.
Wellnhofer will also participate in the 57th annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, hosted by The Field Museum October 8-11.
Buried in Limestone for 150 Million Years
All of the Archaeopteryx fossils were unearthed in the Upper Jurassic Solnhofen limestone quarries that cover a 516-square-mile area near Solnhofen, Germany, and date to around 150 million years ago.
Solnhofen limestone is extremely fine grained. The rock is quarried commercially for use in lithographic printing, which is why the fossils in it are so incredibly detailed. Even the soft parts of animals like crabs, insects and jellyfish have been preserved in Solnhofen limestone. In fact, the preservation is so good that scientists have reconstructed an entire oceanic ecosystem where Archaeopteryx lived. Remnants of ancient reefs, islands and marine lagoons in the limestone have yielded more than 450 species of animals that lived in the area 150 million years ago, including eight species of jellyfish consisting entirely of soft body parts.
Solnhofen limestone formed in what was once a shallow and stagnant marine lagoon. "The bottom of the lagoon had no oxygen, so the dead animals that fell to the bottom of it did not decay," says Flynn. "Bird fossils with feathers are rare elsewhere because the conditions necessary for the preservation of feathers are very unusual."
Only one dinosaur species has been recovered so far in the Solnhofen rock: Compsognathus, a small ground-dwelling dinosaur that ran on its two hind legs. Compsognathus is a theropod dinosaur, the group most closely related in physical structure to Archaeopteryx. A cast of a fossil skeleton of Compsognathus will be displayed in the exhibit along with many marine fossils from Solnhofen.
The exhibit will also feature a lifelike reconstruction of Archaeopteryx that was based on fossil evidence. Greg Septon of the Milwaukee Public Museum used teeth from a rainbow trout and plumage and body parts from seven different species of birds from around the world to bring Archaeopteryx to life.
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