Archaeopteryx: The Thermopolis specimen. Photo by Mark Ryan.
Archaeopteryx: The Thermopolis specimen. Photo by Mark Ryan.
An Archaeopteryx fossil known as the Thermopolis specimen was put on public display last week in the small town of Thermopolis, Wyoming.

What makes this fossil so special is that it is one of only ten described Archaeopteryx specimens in the entire world, and second only to the Berlin specimen in preservation. It’s also the only one that can be seen on this side of the Atlantic.

My brother and I happened to be in Wyoming on one of our annual geological excursions last week, so we made it part of our itinerary to head up to see this rare and unusual fossil. Thermopolis is located at the north end of the Wind River canyon about 220 miles from Yellowstone National Park. It’s not the most accessible site, but the drive offered both beautiful scenery and spectacular geology.

The Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming: Photo by Mark Ryan.
The Wyoming Dinosaur Center, Thermopolis, Wyoming: Photo by Mark Ryan.
The magpie-sized Archaeopteryx (its name means “ancient wing”) is housed in the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, a privately owned museum containing an impressive array of fossils and mounted dinosaurs, including many found in right in the Thermopolis area. As you’d expect, a number of the skeletons on display are enormous, including a Tyrannosaurus rex, the bullish Triceratops, and a full-sized Supersaurus spanning an amazing 106 feet in length. But the new star of the show is the tiny, feathered dinosaur-bird preserved in about a foot-square slab of limestone from the famed Solnhofen limestone quarry in Bavaria, Germany. And let me tell you, it is truly something special to behold.

Since the discovery of the first Archaeopteryx back in 1861, the creature has long been considered as strong evidence of an evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs, and the Thermopolis specimen adds greatly to that argument. Feathered impressions of its bird-like wings and long tail are clearly visible in the fossil, but so are ankles and foot bones that are nearly identical to those of velociraptors and other meat-eating therapod dinosaurs. The fossil shows the Archaeopteryx had a hyper-extendable second toe that could be raised off the ground perhaps for slashing or walking purposes, and a first toe (hallux) that isn’t reversed as it is in modern perching birds. The latter leads scientists to think that the protobird may not have spent much time in the trees when it was alive during the Late Jurassic period 150 million years ago. The fossil was described by Gerald Mayr, et al in the December 2005 issue of Science .

You might wonder how such a world-class fossil ended up in a tiny town in the middle of Wyoming. Well, when a private collector put the specimen up for sale a few years ago, a museum in Germany tried to purchase it but couldn’t come up with the funds. But then an anonymous donor came forward and purchased it for display at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, with the understanding that it would be accessible to scientists and the public. That’s lucky for us.

Until now Thermopolis’s main claim to fame were the hot springs that percolate into the town from the nearby Owl Creek Mountains. But that’s all changed now that this very special fossil has come there to roost.


Wyoming Dinosaur Center
Description in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society
Article in the Casper Star-Tribune
Reproductions of Archaeopteryx by WDC’s Scott Hartman
Controversy about the Thermopolis specimen

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

diana's picture
diana says:

that is so cool

posted on Fri, 11/16/2007 - 4:49pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

God must have been working hard when he made and buried this piece of creationism!

posted on Fri, 06/27/2008 - 4:12am

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