Is this animal a dinosaur or a bird? Maybe it’s both!

A pigeon-size creature perches in a tree in what’s now Germany. Spotting a small reptile on the ground, it launches itself off the branch and glides down, snagging the prey with its claws. Called Archaeopteryx (ARK-ee-OP-tur-ikhs), this animal will puzzle scientists about 150 million years later: They weren’t sure if it was a dinosaur or a bird.

Early bird

Archaeopteryx had teeth and a long bony tail, just like other dinos in the theropod family, including Tyrannosaurus rex and Allosaurus. But it had characteristics of modern birds, too, like feathers and a wishbone, or furcula, which aids modern birds’ flight. It also had wings—but with claws on them.

Plus, Archaeopteryx could fly—maybe. Scientists are still debating if Archaeopteryx could lift off from the ground and flap its wings to truly fly, or if it instead used its claws to climb trees before gliding from branch to branch or to the ground.

And about those feathers: Scientists have found evidence that other dinosaurs like Velociraptor had feathers designed to help keep them warm. But Archaeopteryx’s feathers are built for flight. They’re flat with a quill down the center, just like modern birds.

Because this creature has features of both reptilian dinos and birds, scientists learned that modern birds are actually the living descendants of dinosaurs.

Fossil finds

Found in a limestone quarry in Germany in 1861, the first Archaeopteryx fossil astonished scientists—they believed they’d discovered the world’s first bird. They named the animal for the Greek words meaning “ancient” and “wing.” Scientists have since found about a dozen more Archaeopteryx fossils, and they’ve also discovered evidence of even older bird-like dinos.

Although Archaeopteryx isn’t the earliest bird, it’s still helping us learn. Scientists have identified the color of one of its feathers: black!

Watch Dino Road Trip

Ali and Sean travel back 150 million years to the Jurassic period to get a look at a flying dinosaur called the Anchiornis. Tour guide Simon reveals that this dinosaur actually had feathers!