Computer imaging of Archeopteryx skull suggests this dinosaur-bird link could fly

August 04, 2004

AUSTIN, Texas - Using computer imaging to model a fossil of an Archeopteryx animal, a scientific team led by a University of Texas at Austin geologist has provided strong evidence that the forerunner to birds had a brain equipped to handle delicate flight maneuvers.

"This animal had huge eyes and a huge vision region in its brain to go along with that, and a great sense of balance," said Dr. Timothy Rowe. "Its inner ear also looks very much like the ear of a modern bird."

Rowe co-directs the university's High-Resolution X-ray Computed Tomography (UTCT) facility, where he was able to help determine the bird-brain features of Archeopteryx from a fossil fragment brought to him by Angela Milner. The paleontologist at London's Natural History Museum is a co-author of the Nature paper that will be published Aug. 5, about the findings.

Rowe and other scientists revere the 147-million-year-old specimen that was originally discovered in German limestone in 1861 because it was found a year after Charles Darwin published "On The Origin of Species," and supports the theory of evolution. The new findings suggest it will also help define when bird flight began.

Dinosaurs found in China and elsewhere during the past decade have caused scientists to speculate that some had feathers, but couldn't fly. This research, Rowe said, disproves the theory that Archeopteryx was among those dinosaurs.

Rowe and Dr. Richard Ketcham, who manages the UTCT facility, took 1,300 images of the skull fragment that once held the creature's brain, eyes and ears using the university's sophisticated CT scanner. Ketcham then spent months removing artifacts that marred the images so the scientists could reconstruct the size and the features of the brain using 3-D modeling software.

The upper bones that covered the creature's braincase were overlapped in the squashed fossil. Computer modeling allowed the scientists to reposition the skull bones next to each other as they likely occurred in life. The repositioning suggested that the creature had a brain about three times larger than crocodiles and other modern reptiles, and of a similar size to many modern birds.

"There are living birds that have brains that are relatively smaller than Archeopteryx," Rowe said.

Birds are thought to need significant brain power because of the specialized visual and other requirements of flight. High flyers, for example, need to coordinate information coming from their eyes and ears, while relying less on smell. Because of the markings the Archeopteryx brain left inside its skull, the scientists could tell that it had a large midbrain region, where this ear/eye crosstalk would occur, and complex inner ear structures just like birds. However, it had little nervous system hardware to process smells.

Its brain also had a large outer region, or cortex, required to process other complex information during flight, such as the wind pressure detected by nerve cells attached to individual feathers. The bird predecessor would have used that sensory information from wing feathers to make body adjustments during flight.

"The wing of a bird is really much more sophisticated than the wing of an airplane," said Rowe, who has extensive experience imaging modern birds and other modern and ancient animals.

The scientists' future studies will focus on how Archeopteryx flew and determining its evolutionary ancestors.
NOTE: For photos or illustrations related to this research, contact Barbra Rodriguez at 512-232-0675 or

University of Texas at Austin

Related Evolution Articles from Brightsurf:

Seeing evolution happening before your eyes
Researchers from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg established an automated pipeline to create mutations in genomic enhancers that let them watch evolution unfold before their eyes.

A timeline on the evolution of reptiles
A statistical analysis of that vast database is helping scientists better understand the evolution of these cold-blooded vertebrates by contradicting a widely held theory that major transitions in evolution always happened in big, quick (geologically speaking) bursts, triggered by major environmental shifts.

Looking at evolution's genealogy from home
Evolution leaves its traces in particular in genomes. A team headed by Dr.

How boundaries become bridges in evolution
The mechanisms that make organisms locally fit and those responsible for change are distinct and occur sequentially in evolution.

Genome evolution goes digital
Dr. Alan Herbert from InsideOutBio describes ground-breaking research in a paper published online by Royal Society Open Science.

Paleontology: Experiments in evolution
A new find from Patagonia sheds light on the evolution of large predatory dinosaurs.

A window into evolution
The C4 cycle supercharges photosynthesis and evolved independently more than 62 times.

Is evolution predictable?
An international team of scientists working with Heliconius butterflies at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama was faced with a mystery: how do pairs of unrelated butterflies from Peru to Costa Rica evolve nearly the same wing-color patterns over and over again?

Predicting evolution
A new method of 're-barcoding' DNA allows scientists to track rapid evolution in yeast.

Insect evolution: Insect evolution
Scientists at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have shown that the incidence of midge and fly larvae in amber is far higher than previously thought.

Read More: Evolution News and Evolution Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to