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?
The legendary Peter Wellnhofer to the rescue!
I wasn’t aware that anyone had even taken notice, let alone planned any celebrations1. So, I contacted Peter Wellnhofer in Germany, who is the leading authority on the Archaeopteryx specimens and their history. I asked Peter if he knew what, if anything, was happening. I immediately received an email reply.
A beautiful commemorative coin from Germany
“Yes,” Peter Wellnhofer responded, “in Germany a 10 euro silver coin (not a medal) will be issued on August 11, 2011. It will be possible to purchase those coins at any bank account here. For obvious reasons it displays the Berlin specimen, although the feather was actually found first in 1861.” An internet search showed that the design chosen was actually the winner of a competition. The second prize has the 1861 feather, but none of them used the 1861 skeleton. The Berlin specimen, although not discovered until 1876, was the winning choice, and I agree with using this most recognizable fossil.
Only in America? How ‘bout never in America!
There are a couple remarkable things about this coin. First, it’s amazing that the German government would honor Archaeopteryx by emblazoning its image2. Second, even more amazing is what’s inscribed on the edge of the coin: “Archaeopteryx – Zeuge der Evolution,” which translates to “Archaeopteryx – witness evolution.” Sadly, it’s only “amazing” to Americans. Can any US citizen imagine our Congress voting to inscribe the word “evolution” on our money…or use a symbol of evolution like Archaeopteryx? The Bank of England likewise puts Charles Darwin on its 10-pound note without fear of remonstration. It’s hard to see that happening here. Maybe Archaeopteryx can help us fight the good fight!
What about an actual birthday for Archaeopteryx?
I also asked Professor Wellnhofer if he knew any specific dates, such as the exact day when the first feather (now in the Humboldt Museum in Berlin) and the first skeleton (the so-called London Specimen, housed in the Natural History Museum) were discovered. He replied: “The exact dates of the discovery of neither the feather nor the London specimen are known. However, from von Meyer’s letters to the Neues Jahrbuch, it seems to have been in spring or summer of 1861. He published them on August 15, and September 30, 1861, respectively.” So, we don’t know exactly when quarry workers found the fossils, but we do have some publication dates. It turns out that all of this chronology has received considerable scrutiny over the years because of questions about the taxonomic validity of the name Archaeopteryx lithographica and to which specimen (the feather or the London specimen) should the name be formally linked (as a type specimen). This is fascinating stuff (really, it is); if you’re interested, go to
and enter “Archaeopteryx” into the search box. But if we’re just trying to find out the birthday of Archaeopteryx, then we have an answer.
September 30, 2011 is the 150th birthday of Archaeopteryx lithographica!
In Hermann von Meyer’s letter to Neues Jahrbuch dated 30 September 1861, he declares “For the denomination of the animal I consider the term Archaeopteryx lithographica as appropriate.” Although it’s not entirely clear whether he’s talking about the feather or the London specimen, this represents the first use of the name. August 15 is also significant as the anniversary of the first written mention of the fossil (the feather) that would be called Archaeopteryx six weeks later. So, we can celebrate twice, or we can…
Celebrate the sesquicentennial of Archaeopteryx all year long
We’ve started an Archaeopteryx Sesquicentennial Celebration photo album on our Facebook page, so check back there (or become a fan and you’ll get updates automatically). We’ll also probably do a more WitmerLabocentric post or two here since we’ve published a number of articles that have dealt with Archaeopteryx. I also heard just today from Daniela Schwartz-Wings, Curator at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin, and she informs me that they will open a special exhibit in June entitled “Feathered flight – 150 years of Archaeopteryx,” which is wonderful news indeed. A final point of thanks goes to Peter Wellnhofer for not only helping me out but also for his illustrious service to humanity through his scientific work. I highly recommend his recent book: Archaeopteryx, the Icon of Evolution, 2009 (www.pfeil-verlag.de). Also, listed below is Peter’s excellent 2010 historical article on Archaeopteryx. Archaeopteryx has more of its story to tell, more to teach us. This is the year to listen.
1 A web search later showed that someone blogged about the anniversary last week.
2 Germany apparently has a long history of issuing commemorative coins, so much so that there’s even an iPhone app to help collectors!
Meyer, H. von, 1861a. Vogel-Federn und Palpipes priscus von Solenhofen. Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geognosie Geologie und Petrefakten-Kunde, 1861(5): 561.
Meyer, H. von, 1861b. Archaeopterix lithographica (Vogel-Feder) und Pterodactylus von Solenhofen. Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geognosie, Geologie und Petrefakten-Kunde, 1861(6): 678–679. [note: that misspelling of Archaeopteryx is in the original title]
Owen, R. 1863. On the Archaeopteryx of von Meyer, with a description of the fossil remains of a long-tailed species, from the lithographic stone of Solenhofen. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 153:33-47.
Wellnhofer, P. 2010. A short history of research on Archaeopteryx and its relationship with dinosaurs. in Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. & Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 343, 237–250.