Artworks bring famous fossil alive in ‘Dinosaurs Take Flight’

Discovered in 1861, the small feathered dinosaur Archaeopteryx has been called the most famous fossil in history — serving as a “missing link” between extinct dinosaurs and living birds.

“Dinosaurs Take Flight: The Art of Archaeopteryx,” opening on Saturday, Feb. 11 at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, uses sculpture and illustrations to tell the story of the creature and its role in understanding the origin of birds, the beginnings of flight, and evolution itself. The exhibit, a collaboration between Silver Plume Exhibitions and the Yale Peabody Museum, will be on view through Aug. 30.

“Dinosaurs Take Flight” aims to present science through art — bringing Archaeopteryx to life in a way that fossils alone cannot, say the organizers.

Six of today’s top paleo-artists were commissioned to work closely with scientists using the most up-to-date information from research by Yale paleontologists and others to render the feathers, coloration, and anatomy of Archaeopteryx, as well as that of its prehistoric contemporaries.

The exhibit features more than 50 pieces of original art, murals, sculptures, and cast specimens of most of the known Archaeopteryx fossils. Complementing the artwork are real fossils — including fossils from Peabody collections — of animals that lived alongside Archaeopteryx. There are dragonflies, insects, squid, shrimp, horseshoe crabs, fish, brittle stars, and more. Video interviews and interactive components allow visitors to further explore the subject.

The history of Archaeopteryx is well documented. The exhibition includes research-grade replicas of eight Archaeopteryx specimens, along with information on the discovery and scientific significance of each.

Among them is the “London Specimen.” Originally described in 1862, it was among the first examples of extinct “missing links” connecting birds to other reptiles. Charles Darwin was among the first to recognize the fossil’s evolutionary significance and the key role it would play in reconstructing the past.

Darwin referred to the fossil as “that strange bird … with a long lizard-like tail, bearing a pair of feathers on each joint, and with its wings furnished with two free claws.” In the fourth edition of “On the Origin of Species,” published in 1866, Darwin declares that Archaeopteryx is evidence enough for him to dismiss the prevailing theory that all birds came suddenly into existence at once. “Hardly any recent discovery,” he expounds, “shows more forcibly than this how little we as yet know of the former inhabitants of the world.”

Also on view is a replica of the “Haarlem Specimen.” This fossil was originally described as a pterosaur until 1972, when Yale paleontologist and Peabody curator John Ostrom spotted it in the collections of the Teylers Museum in Germany. It did not look like any pterosaur he had ever seen, and when he carried it to a window he saw the unmistakable impression of feathers. His immediate conclusion — that this was another Archaeopteryx — turned out to be correct. Anatomical similarities between this fossil and his recently discovered Deinonychus gave Ostrom conclusive evidence that birds are living dinosaurs.

Artists featured in “Dinosaurs Take Flight” are Julius Csotonyi, Mark Hallett, Luis Rey, Gary Staab, William Stout, and Dennis Wilson.

Among Rey’s contributions is a mural created for the exhibition. “I wanted to reflect the multiple sizes and astounding shapes of Archaeopteryx’s relatives,” says Rey. In addition to Archaeopteryx, the mural depicts Confuciusornis, a flying Cathayornis, Ichthyornis, Anchiornis, Tröodon, Velociraptor, Deinonychus, Microraptor, Bambiraptor, Sinornithosaurus, and a cut-off Utahraptor — which Rey describes as “trying to get away from everything.” Accompanying the mural is an interactive touch screen where visitors can learn more about these long-extinct dinosaurs.

One of Hallett’s contributions is a gouache on coldpress board depicting Archaeopteryx surrounded by five modern-day birds, the smallest of which is attracting its curiosity. As an artist consultant to Steven Spielberg, Hallett worked on many of the dinosaurs for “Jurassic Park,” and later on the scenes and characters for Disney’s “Dinosaur.” He writes, “My greatest desire is to excite the imagination and sense of wonder we all have about the natural world, and about the fascinating creatures and worlds that exist now and in the past.”

Artist Stout’s work was acknowledged by Michael Crichton as inspiration for his book “Jurassic Park.” One of his paintings in the exhibition shows a vibrantly colored, broad-winged Archaeopteryx chasing an insect.

“Dinosaurs Take Flight” also gives visitors a glimpse into the studios and practices of the artists, with personal memorabilia and old sketches on display. Childhood artwork by each is presented on colorful panels. 

Support for this exhibition was provided by the 2016-2017 O.C. Marsh Fellows Program at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Opening day events

On the exhibition’s opening day, Feb. 11, there will be interactive activities associated with “Dinosaurs Take Flight.” There will be a scavenger hunt, SciCart demos, touch table, games, and a craft project. The program, taking place 10 a.m.–4 p.m., is free with museum admission.

Museum information

“Dinosaurs Take Flight” is on view during regular museum hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. The museum is open until 8 p.m. the first Thursday of each month, and closed Mondays except for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day, and Columbus Day. It is also closed Jan. 1, Easter, July 4, Thanksgiving, and Dec. 24 and 25.

The Yale Peabody Museum is located at 170 Whitney Ave. (corner of Whitney Avenue and Sachem Street). Admission is $13 for adults; $9 for seniors 62 and over; $6 for children ages 3-18 and students with I.D.; and free for children under 3, museum members, and Yale I.D. holders. No admission is charged Thursdays after 2 p.m. from September through June. Visit peabody.yale.edu for parking and other information.