September 30, 1861 (a Monday)

Archaeopteryx lithographica, a specimen displayed at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. (This image shows the original fossil – not a cast.)

On this date, the German paleontologist Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer christened the fossil he had found in 1860 in the Solnhofen limestone (Upper Jurassic) near Eichstatt, Germany as Archaeopteryx lithographica. He wrote:

Additional to my writing of the fifteenth of last month, I can notify you that I have inspected the feather from Solenhofen closely from all directions, and that I have come to the conclusion that this is a veritable fossilisation in the lithographic stone that fully corresponds with a birds’ feather. Simultaneously, I heard from Mr. Obergerichtsrath Witte, that the almost complete skeleton of a feather-clad animals had been found in the lithographic stone. It is reported to show many differences with living birds. I will publish a report of the feather I inspected, along with a detailed illustration. As a denomination for the animal I consider Archaeopteryx lithographica to be a fitting name […]

Archaeopteryx lithographica, fossilized single feather found 1860. (This image shows the original fossil – not a cast.)

The discovery of Archaeopteryx did not escape the notice of Charles Darwin, of course, who had published The Origin of Species only two years earlier. In a letter to American geologist and zoologist James D. Dana dated 7 January 1863 he wrote:

The fossil Bird with the long tail & fingers to its wings (I hear from Falconer that Owen has not done the work well) is by far the greatest prodigy of recent times. It is a grand case for me; as no group was so isolated as Birds; & it shows how little we know what lived during former times. Oh how I wish a skeleton could be found in your so-called Red Sandstone footstep-beds.—

Because it exhibits both avian and reptilian characteristics, Archaeopteryx is usually considered a transitional form, most likely one of the close relatives of an ancestor of the modern bird.

The fossilized feather is currently located at the Natural History Museum in London, having been bought by Richard Owen shortly after. It is generally assigned to Archaeopteryx and was the initial holotype, but whether it actually is a feather of this species or another, as yet undiscovered, proto-bird is unknown. There are some indications it is indeed not from the same animal as most of the skeletons (the “typical” A. lithographica).

References:

  • Hermann von Meyer, “Archaeopteryx lithographica”, Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Paläontologie (1861), 678-9.
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One response to “September 30, 1861 (a Monday)

  1. Actually, the fossil Von Meyer refers to now resides in the Natural History Museum in London, having been bought by Richard Owen shortly after. The Berlin specimen is the second (semi-)complete Archaeopteryx specimen, which was found in 1876.

    Funnily enough, when Von Meyer published his description, he’d never seen the specimen – he was acting on the word of one of his informers. He had seen the feather, however, and even though it isn’t certain this feather belonged to Archaeopteryx it was included in the species.

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