The beauty of the beast

I will admit it. I am fond of this weeks bad cast. The cast is not unique or unusual. Nor is it particularly striking. The beauty of this beast is unseen.

A familiar cast? It is of course, the wonderful Archaeopteryx.

A familiar cast? It is of course, the wonderful Archaeopteryx.

You will immediately recognise this cast: Archaeopteryx. A cast of one of the most famous fossils in history. Preserved almost perfectly for around 150 million years, this is a truly beautiful creature. The preservation on the real fossil is so incredible even the feathers have been fossilised. This is down to the exquisite limestone they have been encapsulated for an immense period of time: the Solnhofen Limestone.

The limestone in Solnhofen, Germany, has been quarried for centuries. Forming around 150 million years ago this was once at the edge of the now extinct Tethys Sea. Here, there was a beautiful, sparkling lagoon. Beautiful but deadly. With the salinity so high, no organisms could live here. This was good news for future palaeontologists, because no organisms in the lagoon means there is nothing to eat anything that falls into it. Added to this was the incredibly fine carbonate mud falling to the bottom. So not only was anything that fell into the lagoon protected from scavengers, their bodies were covered in extremely fine sediment. The result – exquisitely gorgeous fossils including plants, insects, pterosaurs, and of course Archaeopteryx.

Admittedly it is not the most detailed cast ever produced. Made with a rather thick, powdery Plaster of Paris, you can only just make out the outline of the wings. Today, fine resins make much more detailed casts of fossils, often reproducing the smallest of details.

This cast is certainly not rare. Almost every museum in the UK will have a copy of this famous specimen. So confident that you are guaranteed to see this cast, my chum at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, Mark Carnall, included it in his slightly tongue-in-cheek, ‘Museum Bingo’. Here you take the Museum Bingo card into a museum and cross off the specimens you see. More often than not, you will shout ‘Bingo’!

And it is true. There are plenty of them about. I have seen an Archaeopteryx proudly displayed in a case right next to the front doors welcoming all visitors. In another museum, a quirky ‘real life’ model of an Archaeopteryx is perched valiantly next to the cast. One museum goes one step further and boldly places the cast on the wall to explain bird evolution: it is the only specimen on the wall and I am really sure it works.

So why, if nearly every museum in the UK has a copy, do I have such a secret crush on this bad cast?

True beauty is not in what something looks like. Something that appears beautiful can actually be quite the opposite. I have known a couple of people whom many would say are beautiful. They have strong features, soft skin, big eyes. But to me, they were not beautiful. They lacked personality, humour, empathy, kindness, or warmth. These are the features that make someone (or something) beautiful. The ability to make someone smile; to have interesting, engaging chats; to understand others and to have that warmth of kindness in their eyes. There are so many truly beautiful people in the world. And it is their beauty that really shines.

This Archaeopteryx cast is beautiful. There are only 12 specimens of Archaeopteryx in museums in the world. Twelve. Being so rare, not every museum can hold a specimen. But that doesn’t stop every museum from wanting one. Because these were amazing animals.

Archaeopteryx is one of those ancient animals that have caused heated debate ever since it was first discovered. It is incredible because it has gorgeously preserved feathers; real, long, asymmetrical feathers, which are used in birds today for flight. But there are traits in this creature that cannot be seen in birds today:

  • Archaeopteryx had fingers: birds today have three fingers (digits ii, iii, and iv) which have shrunk or fused to form an extra one in the wing.
  • Archaeopteryx clearly has teeth: birds today lack teeth in their beaks. Some chicks have an ‘egg tooth’ to help them get out of the egg when they hatch.
  • Archaeopteryx had several bones in its tail: birds today have a small number of 5 or 6 tail bones fused together (called the pygostyle).

A strange creature indeed. And it clearly shows a very close relationship between dinosaurs and birds. Although maybe not a direct ancestor for modern birds, this was a very early type of bird which had wings for flying.

And even after 150 years after it was first discovered, we are still learning new things about this ancient bird. In 20122 a team used the incredibly powerful Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to look a feather of Archaeopteryx. Zooming in at such a high magnification brings out features that have not been seen before, including structures of melanosomes: the cells which store the colour of the feather. The team compared the structures to many other bird melanosomes, and it showed this feather was very likely black. Another study looking at more feathers indicated that some were dark and light. Each new fascinating bit of research adds a little extra detail to this enigmatic bird.

Using the bad cast. I like to use Archaeopteryx at events. This week I have been running an event for Science Week. School shave been learning about bird anatomy, plus a little bit of evolutionary history.

Using the bad cast. I like to use Archaeopteryx at events. This week I have been running an event for Science Week. Schools have been learning about bird anatomy, plus a little bit of evolutionary history.

All of these great features, and the historical tales of great debates of Archaeopteryx, make this a wonderful fossil to have a cast of. Does it matter that it is a cast? Not really, no. It was cast from the original fossil. And the cast can be used in many different ways. Many museums have it on display. I don’t. I actually use it for talking to schools or families about anatomy, evolution, adaptation, fossils, history of science…This is one of my regulars I get out for events. And it never fails to impress.

The beauty of this Archaeopteryx cast is it’s ability to inspire. Talking to people of all ages and letting them get up close to this fossil, give a real sense of awesomeness. It may not be the most perfect cast, but goodness me, it really is the most beautiful.

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Filed under Fossils, Museum Collections

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