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Bird Ancestor Had Smarts to Fly

An Archaeopteryx skull suggests the creature and its forbears had the ability, scientists say.

August 07, 2004|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

The first look inside the skull of Archaeopteryx, one of the earliest known bird-like creatures, suggests that its brain was sophisticated enough to master the vagaries of flight.

Paleontologists have long argued whether the 147-million-year-old creature, about the size of a modern crow, could fly. The new evidence, reported this week in the journal Nature, indicates not only that Archaeopteryx could fly, but that it must also have had many ancestors who could.

"If flight was this advanced by the time Archaeopteryx was around, then were birds actually flying millions of years earlier than we previously thought?" asked paleontologist Angela Milner of the Natural History Museum in London, lead author of the paper.

Milner's team used a CT scan to examine the structure of the brain of an Archaeopteryx fossil discovered in Germany in 1861, one of only seven such fossils known. The creature was unusual because it had the claws, teeth and long bony tail of a dinosaur, but also feather-covered wings and body.

The scan showed that Archaeopteryx's brain was about the same size as an eagle's -- three times the size of brains from reptiles of about the same size -- and that it had optic centers and inner ears similar to those of modern birds. The latter are needed to balance in flight.

"While it may not have been the best flier, we feel sure that it most certainly could fly," said co-author Richard Ketcham of the University of Texas, who performed the scan.

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