The Archaeopteryx is possibly the most famous fossilised bird in scientific history.


Richard Owen ‘On the Archeopteryx of Von Meyer’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 1863, 153, pp.33-47, plate 1


The plate above is taken from the Philosophical Transactions paper ‘On the Archaeopteryx of Von Meyer, with a description of the Fossil Remains of a Long-tailed species, from the Lithographic Stone of Solenhofen’ – I think you’ll agree, a rather catchy title – written by none other than Richard Owen FRS.

Archaeopteryx was a transitional fossil linking dinosaurs and birds, alluded to briefly by Owen in this paper, though he studiously refrains from making the connection explicit here – unsurprising, given his opinion of Darwinian evolution. There are references which enable the reader to infer the link, for example in plate II (below) he compares the wing-bones of the Archaeopteryx (fig. 1) with those of bird (fig. 2) and a Pterodactyl (fig. 3) side by side.


Richard Owen ‘On the Archeopteryx of Von Meyer’, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 1863, 153, pp.33-47, plate 2


However, Owen continuously refers to the Archaeopteryx as a bird, emphasising the closer ties that the specimen shares with birds, ending with one final reinforcement:

“The best-determinable parts of its preserved structure declare it unequivocally to be a Bird, with rare peculiarities indicative of a distinct order in that class. By the law of correlation we infer that the mouth was devoid of lips, and was a beak-like instrument fitted for preening the plumage of Archaeopteryx. A broad and keeled breast-bone was doubtless associated in the living bird with the great pectoral ridge of the humerus [sic], with the furculum, and with the other evidences of feathered instruments of flight.” (p.46)

Of course, other scientists were able to draw their own conclusions from this work, and many – including Gideon Mantell, as you may recall from a previous blog post – were already wary of Owen, not least the referees of this particular paper. In the original submitted draft, Owen attempts to take credit for this particular species, originally titling his paper ‘On the Archaeopteryx macrurus, Owen’. Hugh Falconer comments definitely on this in his report, stating ‘This ought not to be allowed in the Royal Transactions [as] Von Meyer first named the fossil in a communication dated the 30th Sept. 1861 […] in the ‘Jahrbuch’ for the year’ (RR/5/162 p.2). The true name, according to Falconer, is the Archaeopteryx lithographica of Von Meyer. Quite rightly, therefore, credit is given in the printed paper to Von Meyer, who had precedence over Owen, though Owen in his introduction comments that the single feather upon which Von Meyer’s identification rests is not sufficient proof of species identity but he will retain (begrudgingly, we can assume!) the original classification for now.

The lithographica in the genus refers to the type of stone in which the specimen was found, being a type of limestone used in lithography. Coincidentally, the images within the Phil Trans were printed through lithography, and many fossils were found while quarrying for stone for this very purpose. The image below, taken from Sam. Christian Hollman’s 1775 ‘Commentationum in Reg. Scient. Societ. Goetting’, indicates the stratified nature of the rock which was later quarried for lithography, and Hollman comments on the range of specimens which are found in this particular type of stone.


Image of a quarry, from Sam. Christian Hollman ‘Commentationum in Reg. Scient. Societ. Goetting’ (1775)


In his Archaeopteryx paper, Owen comments on ‘the peculiar stone which the progress of lithographic art has rendered so valuable’ (p.44). The usefulness here is twofold: in the finding of the specimen and again in the communication of the images which accompany the paper. These gave readers their first real glimpse of Archaeopteryx, an important discovery which would come to be considered as conclusive evidence of an evolutionary stepping-stone between dinosaurs and birds.

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