/ The Houston Guide
Houston — By Christina Uticone on May 15, 2010 at 1:08 pm
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Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution

houston museum natural science

Archaeopteryx

Naturalists will love this limited-engagement exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.  Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution is open to the public through September 6, 2010 and features some of the most rare, well-preserved fossils of the Late Jurassic period in existence today.  In fact, this exhibit is quite a coup for the HMNS, one that you would expect to find in New York City or Chicago.  The star of the show is the Archaeopteryx itself, one of only ten specimens in the world; only three of these exist outside Germany, with this being the only one in North America.

Archaeopteryx means “ancient wing” and is the name given to the fossil, discovered in 1861, that provided the “missing link” between dinosaurs and the modern bird.¬† Though winged dinosaurs had already been discovered, it wasn’t until the Archaeopteryx was revealed that scientists¬†could identify that transition in the fossil record.¬† This winged creature displayed something that previous discoveries had not – feathers.

archaeopteryx, houston museum natural science

These small fish around the dragonfly are precursors to modern fish. Another "missing link" on display.

Archaeopteryx was discovered in Germany’s Solenhofen Limestone formation.¬† This formation is famous for its wonderfully preserved fossils.¬† During the Jurassic Period (approximately 150 million years ago) Solenhofen was a tropical lagoon where organisms that died were preserved by the super-salty and anoxic (no oxygen) conditions.¬† Salt, combined with the lack of oxygen, prevented the destruction of the fossils and instead protected the remains from bacteria and biodegredation.¬† The fossils that result are nearly perfect: complete lizard skeletons, imprints of fish scales, and of course, the feathers that make the Archaeopteryx so scientifically important.¬† The German word for these optimum geologic conditions is lagerst√§tten, which literally means “storeroom”; the layers of compressed limestone¬†act as¬†storerooms for the¬†materials they contain.

The sample currently on display at HMNS is the “Thermopolis specimen”, on loan from the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, WY.¬† A majority of the exhibit is on loan from a private owner, who granted permission for visitors to photograph the entire exhibit (a rare treat, as museum-lovers know).¬† During our two-hour visit we¬†had several¬†impromptu mini-lectures from knowledgeable dossents who lingered, but did not intrude, as we moved through the maze of ancient coral, crinoids, lizards, turtles, fish, sharks¬†and other exotic-looking creatures.¬† One could certainly do the exhibit in less time but I recommend at least two hours, especially if you want excellent photographs.¬† The exhibit is fairly well-lit for photography so do bring your camera.

You can connect with the HMNS on Facebook and Twitter.

archaeopteryx, houston museum natural science

Extinct crocodile

What: Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution: An extensive, Jurassic Period collection of fossils

Where: Houston Museum of Natural Science, 1 Hermann Circle Dr. (map)

When: The exhibit is open until September 6, 2010

Tickets: Adults $15; Children/seniors/students $10; Museum members $5.  Tickets are available at the museum or online.

Photo credit: Photo 1, Courtesy the Houston Museum of Natural Science; Photos 2 & 3 courtesy of Joshua Payne.

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    Houston Museum Of Natural Science
    1 Hermann Circle Dr, Houston, Texas, 77030, United States of America
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