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First Flight

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This case shows some of the world’s first flyers. It includes Archaeopteryx lithographica, one of the best-known fossils, which is commonly considered the first bird. Also included are a fossilized pteranodon, a pterosaur bone, and the upper arm bone of an ancient toothed bird.

One of the prime questions in paleontologists’ minds is: “Where did birds come from?” Once they began flying, it is easy to see how they got along, but how did they begin their journey upward? Pterodactyls have a thin membrane supported by one extra long finger, so it has been suggested that they began as gliders. They may have lived in trees or on rocky ledges, and developed gliding as an easier way to get around.

Their gliding abilities may then have increased to the point of flight. Archaeopteryx is slightly harder to understand. Its body conformation is extremely similar to that of a land-bound dinosaur, so it has been proposed that it developed flight “from the ground up.” It started as a jumper, and as it jumped higher and higher, began to fly.

The main problem with that theory is that Archaeopteryx does not have the large breastbone, which is necessary to prevent the rib cage from collapsing during flight. Recently, a new fossil has been found that is older, but more bird-like than Archaeopteryx. This fossil may be one step closer to the true bird ancestor, but the actual ancestor may never be found.

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