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Scientists ID new 'missing link' species between dinosaurs, birds

By Sam Howard
Scientists ID new 'missing link' species between dinosaurs, birds
John Nudds holds up a fossilized specimen of the Archaeopteryx, known as the missing link between dinosaurs and birds. Photo courtesy John Nudds/The University of Manchester

Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Scientists discovered a new species of the "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds, Great Britain's University of Manchester said.

Based on physical characteristics, researchers believe the newly identified species of Archaeopteryx, known as Archaeopteryx albersdoerferi, is a closer cousin to the modern bird than any dinosaur.

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One of 12 Archaeopteryx specimens known to exist, the specimen examined in the latest research effort was the eighth to be discovered and is the youngest by about 500,000 years, the university said in a news release.

To assess the specimen, researchers subjected it to a form of three-dimensional X-ray analysis called synchrotron examination, the university said. They published their results Wednesday in the journal Historical Biology.

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"By digitally dissecting the fossil we found that this specimen differed from all of the others," researcher John Nudds, of the University of Manchester's School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said in a statement. "It possessed skeletal adaptations which would have resulted in much more efficient flight. In a nutshell we have discovered what Archaeopteryx lithographica evolved into -- i.e. a more advanced bird, better adapted to flying -- and we have described this as a new species of Archaeopteryx."

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Sometimes described as a feathered dinosaur, scientists first discovered the Archaeopteryx species in the Bavarian region of southern Germany in 1861. A total of 12 specimens have been unearthed and it's become known as the "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds. Nudds said this latest discovery pinpoints "Archaeopteryx as the first bird, and not just one of a number of feathered theropod dinosaurs, which some authors have suggested recently."

Researchers' analysis pointed to several distinct features of the Archaeopteryx albersdoerferi skeleton, including fused cranial bones, different chest and wing features and reinforced hand bones, the university said.

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It was a significant step forward in skeletal analysis of Archaeopteryx specimens, lead author Dr Martin Kundrát, of Slovakia's University of Pavol Jozef Šafárik, said.

"This is the first time that numerous bones and teeth of Archaeopteryx were viewed from all aspects including exposure of their inner structure," Kundrát said. "The use of synchrotron microtomography was the only way to study the specimen as it is heavily compressed with many fragmented bones partly or completely hidden in limestone."

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