How To Evolve a Wing

Our Archaeopteryx show has bedazzling fossils – the only Archaeopteryx skeleton in the New World, complete with clear impressions of feathers. Plus frog-mouthed pterodactyls, fast-swimming Sea Crocs, and slinky land lizards. Today we learn the different ways in which wings evoloved on various prehistoric creatures.

Solnhofen show us three ways for Darwinian processes to construct a wing from a normal arm

Dactyls:
Dactyls evolved from very close relatives of early dinosaurs. The dinosaurs and their crocodilian kin are archosaurs. Archosaurs developed a unique asymmetry in the hand. Primitive reptiles, like today’s lizards, have five fingers, each with a strong claw. In archosaurs the outer two fingers are weak and have no claw at all.

Crocodilians and many dinosaurs kept this arrangement –  for example, stegosaurs and Triceratops had five fingers and three claws on the inner fingers. Meat-eating dinosaurs usually evolved three-fingered hands, doing away with those outer two claw-less fingers.

‘Dactyls evolved their archosaur hand in a different manner: they lost the pinky (the outermost finger). The claws on the inner three fingers were strong – useful for climbing trees and the sides of cliffs. The fourth finger evolved into an organ we see in no other creature: Finger four became immense, as thick as the thigh or thicker. The finger could be folded back where it joined the wrist for walking on the ground. When flying, the giant finger four was stretched outwards.

 Schematic of a generic pterosaur wing, pencil drawing, digital coloring
Creative Commons License photo credit: Arthurweasley

Solnhofen fossils showed that the wing surface was attached to the finger four and to the sides of the body and the inner edges of the hind leg. So ‘dactyls could flap like a bat – using up and down strokes of both arm and leg to make the power stroke.

Dinosaurs and Birds:

 Archaeopteryx

Birds evolved their wing by another wonderfully unique method. Their hand bones were 99% identical to those in small meat-eating dinosaurs. Only the three inner fingers were retained. Darwinian processes had clipped off the pinky and fourth finger. Solnhofen fossils prove that specialized wing feathers were attached to the second finger. So Archaeopteryx flew with the feathered arm.

Raptor-type dinosaurs, like Velociraptor and Microraptor, had evolved feathers very like those of birds. But these small dinosaurs evolved hind-leg wings to assist the arms. Flight feathers were attached to knee and shin as well as to the forelimb. When a tiny raptor-like dinosaur evolved into Archaeopteryx, the feathers were lost from the hind-legs, leaving just the arm to do the work of flying.

Bats:

Bats are specialized mammals and no bats had evolved in the Jurassic. The first bats appear much later, about 55 million years ago.

Bats use strong skin to make the wing. But unlike ‘dactyls, who evolved just one finger to support the wing surface, bats use three or four fingers to spread the wing and control the wing in flight.

Don’t miss Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution, currently on display at HMNS. Want to learn more? Check out our previous blogs on Archaeopteryx.

The Formation and Preservation of the Solnhofen Fossils

Our new Archaeopteryx exhibition has stunning complete fossils of fish, turtles, crocodiles, shrimp, sharks and much more, all from Solnhofen, Germany. In this blog, Dr. Bakker explains why Solnhofen produced and preserved so many spectacular, intact specimens.

The Mystery of Tropical Germany

From the first diggings in the late 1700’s,  Solnhofen presented a profound puzzle: Why was  Germany tropical in the Jurassic?

The fossil evidence was perplexing:

Fish
Amiopsis Lepidota

Big, long-lived reefs grow only in the tropics – how could northern Europe have supported the Solnhofen reef?

Large crocodiles thrive only in the warmest climate – how could giant sea-crocodiles flourish at Solnhofen?

Huge tree ferns today are emphatically warmth-loving plants – how could tropical ferns grow luxuriously at Solnhofen?

The mystery was world-wide. In the Jurassic, big crocodilians, tree ferns and reefs had spread all over Europe, Asia and North America. The tropical belt must have extended into Alaska and far south into Argentina.

Solnhofen was part of the proof that the Jurassic was one of the warmest periods in the history of life. Since the end of the Jurassic, on average Europe and North America suffered a gradual decrease in winter warmth.

Solnhofen – A Real Jurassic Park

Big-Budget movies have made the Jurassic Period  the most famous sector of geological time in our modern world. But in fact, the Jurassic was already world-renowned by the 1830’s. The first carnivorous dinosaurs known from good skeletons came from the Jurassic of Oxford. The first dinosaur tracks discovered in abundance were from the Jurassic of Massachusetts. The first complete skeletons of giant sea-reptiles were excavated from the Jurassic of southern England.

But no locale has gave finer fossils from the Jurassic than Solnhofen, Germany. Beginning in the mid 1700’s, Solnhofen has provided a never-ending stream of petrified animals and plants.

Fish
Liodesmus Sprattiformis

The exquisite skeletons lie in lithographic limestone, a rock that records not only bones but  impressions of skin and other soft tissue. Vertebrate bodies are preserved in exceptional detail. The pterodactyls at Solnhofen often have fossilized wing membranes. Crustaceans and mollusks are often fossilized as complete bodies. Even the most delicate  parts of squid – tentacles, eyes, and ink sacs – are recorded as high-resolution impressions.

Solnhofen lithographic stone has captured a more complete picture of Jurassic life than any other kind of sediment. Fossils are not common – hundreds of rocks slabs must be split to expose a single animal. Fortunately, the discovery of fossils is encouraged by commercial interests. Beginning in 1798, the lithographic stone has been quarried to make stone plates used to print high-resolution images of paintings, etchings and, later, photographs.

Many scientific publications about Solnhofen fossils have been illustrated by drawings of specimens reproduced via lithographic limestone plates.

Why are Solnhofen fossils so magnificent? The environment  around a tropical reef  was perfect for preservation. Reef-building organisms – sponges, microbes, corals – built up an arc of hard calcium carbonate that shielded a quiet lagoon. All manner of salt-water fish and invertebrates hunted for food in the upper warm waters. Land-living animals came to the beach to search for washed-up carcasses. In the air flew ‘dactyls and, on occasion, a  bird.

When an animal died and sank to the bottom of the lagoon, the water chemistry offered protection from  the forces of decay and dismemberment. The hot tropical climate concentrated the salts in the quietest part of the lagoon, so that most decomposers – organisms that would destroy the carcass – were kept away. Salt-loving microbes spread a thin film over the bottom, and this film functioned like a death-shroud, further protecting the body of dead animals. Perfect fossils were formed when the microbial mat excluded every crab, snail and  bottom-living shark that would otherwise destroy the body.

Extinct Sea Turtle
Eurysternum Wagleri

Solnhofen brings to us a picture of half-way evolution. The rich fish fauna was being modernized by natural selection. Old-fashioned armored fish were going extinct. New styles of jaws and fins were being developed among what would become the dominant fish families in the modern world. Many Solnhofen fish were living-fossils in their own day, representing evolutionary designs that had first appeared two hundred million years earlier. Other Solnhofen fish were the first successful members of clans that dominate today.

Pterodactyls and sea-reptiles too were about half-way in their Darwinian trajectory. Sea-turtles had not yet evolved their specialized flipper. Sea-crocodiles were about to suffer extinction and replacement by the new ocean-going species of the Cretaceous Period. Crustaceans were starting the wave of evolution that would continue as modern crabs and shrimp and lobsters.

There collection displayed here in our exhibit is one of the finest samplings of the entire Solnhofen biota. The Archaeopteryx at the center of the exhibit is the only Archaeopteryx in the New World.