Ostromia crassipes – The First European Member of the Anchiornithidae

The first fossil of Archaeopteryx to have been discovered, turns out not to represent the “Urvogel” at all.  In a reassessment of the fossil, known as the Haarlem specimen, as it is part of the vertebrate collection housed at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem (Holland), it has been re-described as a small predatory dinosaur belonging to the anchiornithid family.  The dinosaur has been named Ostromia crassipes, the genus name honours the late John Ostrom, who identified the Haarlem specimen as a Theropod and was instrumental in the work that led to the definition of dinosaurs as dynamic, active reptiles.

The Haarlem Specimen – the Holotype of Ostromia crassipes

Ostromia crassipes holotype fossil.

The holotype fossil of Ostromia crassipes, previously thought to represent Archaeopteryx.

Picture Credit: Oliver Rauhut/Ludwig-Maximilians-University (Munich, Germany)

The fossil studied, actually consists of two parts, the counterslab TM 6929 (left) and the main slab (right) TM 6928.

Archaeopteryx was named in 1861, however, the Haarlem specimen was found four years earlier.  To date, around a dozen specimens have been assigned to the Archaeopteryx genus, including a single, fossilised feather.  The discovery of Archaeopteryx supported the theory of natural selection proposed by Darwin and Wallace as it represented a transitional form between reptiles and birds.  Archaeopteryx fossils support the idea that modern birds are descendants of carnivorous dinosaurs.

Writing in the academic journal “BMC Evolutionary Biology”, palaeontologists Oliver Rauhut and Christian Foth from the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde in Stuttgart have re-examined the Haarlem specimen.  They conclude that this fossil differs in several important respects from the other known representatives of the genus Archaeopteryx.  The researchers conclude that the fossil is not an Archaeopteryx at all, but a representative of the very bird-like maniraptoran dinosaurs known as anchiornithids.

These crow-sized, predatory dinosaurs possessed feathers on all four limbs, and they predate the appearance of Archaeopteryx by several million years.

Commenting on their study, Dr Oliver Rauhut stated:

“The Haarlem fossil is the first member of this group found outside China and together with Archaeopteryx, it is only the second species of bird-like dinosaur from the Jurassic discovered outside eastern Asia.  This makes it [the Haarlem specimen] even more of a rarity than the true specimens of Archaeopteryx.”

Subtle Anatomical Differences and Bone Osteology

The scientists looked at the relative proportions of limb, toe and finger bones and noted that the Haarlem material (TM 6929 and TM 6928), was different from other Archaeopteryx specimens.  In addition, it had affinities with the fossilised remains of Anchiornis from China.  Furthermore, differences in bone osteology were observed.  For example, the Haarlem fossil specimen has a regular, well-developed longitudinal furrow on the exposed medial side of the preserved manual phalanx, this furrow is not present on any of the finger bones ascribed to Archaeopteryx.

Comparing the Finger Bones (Manual Phalanges) of Various Theropods

Theropod manual phalanges comparison.

Comparison of Theropod finger bones in highly compacted sediments.  Scale bar in mm.

Picture Credit: BMC Evolutionary Biology

The photograph (above) shows close-up views of the finger bones (manual phalanges) of several Theropods, analysis of the shape of the bones, their features and their proportions led the researchers to conclude that the Haarlem specimen was not Archaeopteryx.

(a).  the right manus (hand) of the Thermopolis specimen of Archaeopteryx

(b). the right manus of the Solnhofen specimen of Archaeopteryx

(c). the left manus of the juvenile Theropod from Germany Sciurumimus albersdoerferi (image resolved under UV light)

(d). the second finger of the small Late Jurassic Theropod Compsognathus longipes

(e).  the impression from the first finger of the anchiornithid Anchiornis huxleyi

(f). the first finger of Caudipteryx, a feathered Theropod from the Early Cretaceous of China

Learning About Fauna of the Solnhofen Archipelago

Discovered in 1857, the Haarlem fossil specimen was found about 6 miles (10 kilometres), to the north-east of the closest Archaeopteryx locality known (Schamhaupten) which is near the town of Altmannstein in southern Bavaria.  The Jurassic-aged rocks in this area were laid down in a shallow sea, in which were scattered numerous small islands, an archipelago, that provided an environment, superficially similar to that of the Caribbean today.  These islands that once covered southern Bavaria, are known as the Solnhofen archipelago, the region from which all known specimens of the genus Archaeopteryx come from.  The taxonomic reassignment of the Haarlem specimen to the feathered Anchiornithidae has provided a fresh insight into the evolution of the Avialae and indicates that the first bird-like dinosaurs originated in Asia.  During the Middle to the Late Jurassic these creatures migrated westwards, reaching the Solnhofen archipelago of Western Europe some 150 million years ago.

The Haarlem fossil was originally recovered from what was then the eastern end of the archipelago, quite close to the mainland.  Unlike Archaeopteryx, anchiornithids were (most likely), unable to fly, and might not have been able to reach the more remote islands offshore.   All true fossils of Archaeopteryx found to date were recovered from the lithographic limestone strata further to the west, closer to the open sea.  This implies that dinosaurs like Ostromia may have been limited in their distribution, compared to the volant Archaeopteryx.

Faunal Distribution in the Solnhofen Archipelago (Late Jurassic)

The Solnhofen archipelago and Ostromia/Archaeopteryx distribution.

The researchers speculate that the flightless Ostromia could not have reached the islands furthermost from the mainland whilst Archaeopteryx with its powered flight capability was able to reach outlying islands.

Picture Credit: Everything Dinosaur

In the diagram above, Ostromia may have been unable to reach the more remote parts of the island chain whilst Archaeopteryx, which was capable of powered flight (its aerial abilities are still debated), would have been more able to “island hop”.

Based on these new findings, the researchers postulate that other known Archaeopteryx fossils may need reassessment.

Dr Rauhut suggests:

“Not every bird-like fossil that turns up in the fine-grained limestones around Solnhofen need necessarily be a specimen of Archaeopteryx,”

The scientific paper: “Re-evaluation of the Haarlem Archaeopteryx and the Radiation of Maniraptoran Theropod Dinosaurs” by Christian Foth and Oliver W. M. Rauhut published in BMC Evolutionary Biology.

An article on Archaeopteryx research: Archaeopteryx Had Feathered “Trousers”

The oldest Archaeopteryx fossil: The Oldest Archaeopteryx in Town?

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