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Archive for January, 2011

The London specimen of Archaeopteryx lithographica, collected 150 years ago from the Solnhofen Limestone of Bavaria (image from Richard Owen's 1863 description).

The original, first-discovered feather of Archaeopteryx, discovered 150 years ago in mid-1861 (photo taken by Witmer in Berlin in 1998).

It recently dawned on me that 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery and naming of Archaeopteryx lithographica. In 1861, an isolated feather and a feathered skeleton were discovered in Solnhofen lithographic limestone quarries in Bavaria, southern Germany. Perhaps no other fossils are as important scientifically, historically, and politically as these. The timing was just about perfect for the evolution debates that raged at the time, for here was a remarkable evolutionary intermediate—feathers and wishbone on an otherwise reptilian skeleton—and come to light less than two years after Darwin’s Origin of Species hit bookstores. Since that time, Archaeopteryx has become a political lightning rod in the evolution/creation debates (that sadly still rage), a scientific ruler against which all ideas on avian origins and evolution must be measured, and ultimately an icon, a symbol, sometimes even a logo. Archaeopteryx is famous…and having a birthday! We should celebrate…but how?

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Okay, that title is a little grandiose, but it was the first appearance WitmerLab research has made on a Top-10-rated network television show. We get requests all the time from the cable science networks  for materials for documentaries, and we’ve even personally appeared in a number of them. But in October, I got a call from a producer at CBS’s hit show CSI: Miami, saying that they were doing a show in which an alligator necropsy figured in a couple of scenes (Spoiler Alert: the gator was used as a murder weapon). They had heard that we did high-tech-y stuff with alligators, and they needed some animations to run in the background, and, oh, could they have them…um…now? (more…)

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Hadrosaur multimedia exhibit at "Dinosaurs Unearthed" at the Dallas Museum of Nature & Science. Photo courtesy of Rissa Westerfield, Texas Tech University.

The WitmerLab has an ongoing collaboration on the duckbilled hadrosaur dinosaurs with David Evans of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Recently, we’ve received word that some of that work has found its way into the “Dinosaurs Unearthed” exhibit that has been circulating through the US. First, Ohio University grad student Haley O’Brien texted me a photo of the exhibit at Union Station in Kansas City, and then Texas Tech grad student Rissa Westerfield posted a photo on Facebook of the exhibit at the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas. Then just yesterday, WitmerLab alum Casey Holliday (now at Missouri) chimed in with his own sighting in KC. Presumably, it’s elsewhere, too. We’re thrilled to hear that the outcome of our research is reaching a broad audience!

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