The Scene

Field Museum’s Archaeopteryx may be the ‘most important fossil ever’

Exhibit on display until June 8 before museum unveils permanent, immersive display in fall

An illustration depicts the Chicago Archaeopteryx, now at the Field Museum.

The Field Museum’s iconic T. rex, Sue, may be a little jealous.

There’s a new exhibit in town, Archaeopteryx, and it’s “perhaps the most important fossil ever discovered,” museum President Julian Siggers said.

That’s because the 150-million-year-old dinosaur also qualifies as one of the first known birds and provides “strong support for Darwin’s theory of evolution,” Siggers said.

When it lived during the Jurassic Age, the Chicago Archaeopteryx was about the size of a pigeon, with feathers, a long bony tail and 50 minuscule teeth, Field scientists said.

An exhibit of the Chicago Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird, opened to the public at the Field Museum on Tuesday.

The fossil was unearthed by a private collector in southern Germany before 1990. Some years later, the Field acquired it with help from donors and it’s been at the museum since August 2022.

When it arrived, most of the skeleton was immersed in a layer of rock. Field specialists used tiny drills to chip away at the limestone and expose the bones.

Archaeopteryx will be on view until June 8. The field is preparing a permanent, immersive display that will open this fall.

Birds are the only dinosaurs that escaped certain death when an asteroid smashed into Earth 66 million years ago, Field experts said.

When scientists X-rayed the slab of limestone containing the fossil, “we all cheered and clapped,” Associate Curator of Fossil Reptiles Jingmai O’Connor said.

That’s because “this is without a doubt one of the best specimens of this important species that has ever been found. As a paleontologist whose specialty is the early evolution of birds, Archaeopteryx is like the Holy Grail.”

A number of dignitaries greeted the newcomer.

“I am immensely proud of Chicago Archaeopteryx, which helps solidify this city and state as a global center for paleontology,” Gov. JB Pritzker said.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, a former teacher, recalled collecting fossils as a child in rural Minnesota.

Archaeopteryx is “a classroom from the past, a chapter in the Earth’s history book. Each detail teaches not only about the history of life on Earth but about resilience and adaptation,” she said.

New to Archaeopteryx? Here are some fast facts courtesy of the Field Museum.

  • Scientists have known about the fossil since 1861 but only 13 have been found.
  • Archaeopteryx means “ancient wing” in Latin and is pronounced “Ar-key-AHP-ter-icks.”
  • Chiseling away at the stone to reveal the fossil took Field specialists more than 1,400 hours.
  • Could Archaeopteryx fly? O’Connor theorized that it could – just not very well.

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