Archive for the ‘history’ 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 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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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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