Though the Archaeopteryx had previously been fingered by paleontologists as the first bird to fly, the inconsistent nature of the fossil record made it difficult for scientists to confirm that the ancient creature could indeed take to the air.
But the latest Archaeopteryx fossil, unearthed in 2011, was preserved in fine-grain limestone after succumbing to fate in an ancient lagoon in modern day Bavaria, a region of southern Germany -- thus revealing the bird's full plumage in remarkable detail. The details confirm a lightweight suit (including a strange pair of "feather trousers" on the legs) likely capable of lifting Archaeopteryx skyward, researchers say.
"Since its first discovery in the 1860s, Archaeopteryx has been the object of many debates in relation to bird evolution, especially flight and feather evolution," explained study co-author Oliver Rauhut, a paleontologist at the Bavarian State Collection for Paleontology and Geology in Munich. "There were debates if it was ground-dwelling or arboreal, if it could fly or not."
Archaeopteryx lived 150 million years ago, and though its not the only ancient bird to sport plumage, it is one of the first that used their feathers to take to the air.
The new fossil further informs the evolution of ancient bird feathers.
"Feathers evolved according to evolutionary pressures related to insulation, display, camouflage, and balance first," the scientists wrote in their latest paper. "And were later co-opted in some lineages to allow dinosaurs like Microraptor and (possibly) Archaeopteryx to fly."
Even if other scientists are still skeptical as to the conclusiveness the new specimen provides (to the question of first to fly), its finder is adamant of the significance.
"It retains its status as the Urvogel," study author Christian Foth said. Urgogel is German for "original bird."