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Archive for the ‘Archaeopteryx’ Category

Germany commemorated the 150th anniversary of Archaoepteryx with a 10-Euro silver coin, shown here on the WitmerLab cast of the Berlin specimen.

What a remarkable 150th birthday year it’s been for Archaeopteryx! Sesquicentennial celebrations, commemorative coins and stamps, historical articles, and special exhibits would have been enough, but Archaeopteryx made headlines when a prominent study in the venerable British journal Nature announced that it might not be a bird after all. That study was rebutted by another prominent study, which was in turn rebutted at a prominent conference. If that weren’t enough, an entirely new specimen of Archaeopteryx—only the 11th ever discovered—was announced. Let’s have a closer look at this very eventful year.
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The actual 1861, two-paragraph article with the single, controversial sentence pulled out that names Archaeopteryx lithographica.

It was 150 years ago today, on 30 September 1861, that Hermann von Meyer gave the name Archaeopteryx lithographica to the feathered animal that fluttered over the Solnhofen lagoon in Late Jurassic Bavaria. At right is the entire published article…a scant two paragraphs, only one of which is devoted to Archaeopteryx. In that one paragraph he announced the discovery of a feathered skeleton, to go along with the isolated feather that he had announced six weeks earlier. For decades later, scholars argued over his key statement: “For the denomination of the animal I consider the term Archaeopteryx lithographica as appropriate” (the original German sentence is pulled out in the illustration). He named the animal, but not a specimen. Modern rules dictate the designation of a “holotype” specimen that officially bears the name. Should it be the feather, the skeleton, or neither? I discussed this debate a little in my first Archaeopteryx sesquicentennial post, but the result has been that the skeleton—now known as the London Specimen (BMNH 37001)—is the holotype. Happy 150th Birthday, Archaeopteryx! To celebrate, WitmerLab is launching today a website with five sets of interactive 3D PDFs of skull or skull parts of three Archaeopteryx specimens, including the one von Meyer announced 150 years ago today. It’s all open access and freely downloadable!

The skull of the Eichstätt Archaeopteryx (JM 2257), based on microCT scanning of a high-resolution cast made by Peter Wellnhofer for Witmer.

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The Berlin specimen of Archaeopteryx. (Photo of WitmerLab cast by Amy Martiny.)

I’m an unabashed archaeopterygophile. When I’m in the presence of these famous fossils, the sense of history and significance is palpable. So, when it occurred to me that 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery and naming of Archaeopteryx, I blogged here about sesquicentennial activities. Meanwhile, I was quietly reviewing an article for the venerable science weekly Nature that, if correct, would suggest that Archaeopteryx might not be a bird at all. Today, the article by Xu Xing and colleagues appears, and I was asked to write the News & Views commentary that appears in the same issue. Xu and colleagues report on the discovery of a new species from the Jurassic of Liaoning, China, named Xiaotingia zhengi. Their analysis suggests not only that Xiaotingia is an archaeopterygid, but that archaeopterygids are outside Avialae, the lineage of true birds. The bottom line: Archaeopteryx isn’t a bird! Really? How is that possible and what are the consequences?

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Evolution in birds of the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain where smell information is processed, passing from a dinosaur (Bambiraptor) through early birds (Lithornis, Presbyornis) to a modern-day bird (pigeon).

Birds have a lousy sense of smell, right? That common perception may apply to some modern-day birds, but that wasn’t always the case. Early birds, frankly, smelled like dinosaurs, meaning that they inherited a pretty respectable sense of smell from their dinosaurian kin. The typical scenario had been that as birds evolved flight, the senses of vision and balance increased and the olfactory sense diminished. Darla Zelenitsky (University of Calgary) and François Therrien (Royal Tyrrell Museum) invited Ryan Ridgely and me to join forces in testing this scenario by studying the evolution of the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain receiving information on odors, across the transition from small theropod dinosaurs to birds. As our new article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B reveals, birds started out with a full sensory toolkit, including a pretty capable sniffer. And we also learned a thing or two about non-avian theropods along the way.
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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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