Posts Tagged 'archaeopteryx'

More on the 11th Archaeopteryx

DSCF9843Continuing my collection / database of Archaeopteryx images, it’s time to increase it a little further. Last week I helped out at the Natural History Museum’s ‘open evening’ called “Science Uncovered”. I was there basically to be a scientist for people to talk to, but there were whole stands from other universities with research connected to the NHM and of course a raft of curators, researchers and other staff bringing the behind-the-scences stuff to the front of house. One special had been laid on that really drew the crowds – the 11th Archaeopteryx specimen.

Although it has appeared on here before, this is the first time I had seen it and was able to take some notes of features and indeed get a few photos. The lighting was absolutely nightmarish, but between tons of photos and a bit of tweaking of balance levels I have produced at least a few that are not too terrible, though at not very high resolution and mostly taken at a pretty low angle. Enjoy (as far as you can).





Berlin Archaeopteryx


I’m just back from a quick visit to Berlin and so once I’ve caught up with all the usual stuff that gets behind from being away there’ll be some blogs coming on the exhibitions, Berlin Tier Park and others. Meantime though, here’s the Berlin Archaeopteryx. I have seen this magnificent and legendary specimen a couple of times before and have some old analogue photos, but now have some nice shiny digital ones to put up here. Oddly this is the one obvious specimen that’s been missing from my ‘collection‘. It has been on here before thanks to Heinrich Mallison, but now I can add my own shots to flesh this out with a couple more.




It was suggested to me not too long ago that I might well have the best and most extensive collection of images of Archaeopteryx specimens online. Between having seen quite a few of these on display and having taken photos myself, plus the near endless collection generously sent on by Helmut Tischlinger of his UV works, nearly every specimen is on here and most with multiple views, close-ups and in UV. I am still missing a couple, but I’d have to agree that I’ve yet to see any online collection that can rival mine. Still, they are scatted around all manner of posts and so aren’t necessarily that easy to find. No more, here’s they are all are for convenience.

Cast of the London specimen

The Berlin specimen

The Berlin specimen returns

The Munich specimen

Mayr with the Eichstaett specimen

Eichstaett, Thermopolis and Berlin in UV

Solnhofen, Eichstaett and ‘chicken-wing’ specimens

Close-ups of the Solnhofen specimen

Solnhofen specimen in black and white

The Thermopolis specimen

The Daiting specimen (and in UV)

The most recent (11th) specimen (and in UV)

More on the 11th specimen

Yet more Archaeopteryx – Chicken Wing, Haarlem and Maxberg

If you have others you are happy to share and have permission to distribute, do please let me know and send them on. This is simply there as a reference collection for people to learn and work with, but obviously more (or better, not all of these are great) would be lovely to have and make this still more useful. I know there are some scans and images out there and it’d be great to round this out as a clearing-house for people who want to see and compare these specimens.

Archaeopteryx Coin

Now sure the 150th anniversary of the description of Archaeopteryx was last year, but I’ve only just got my hands on one of the specially minted coins from the German mint. For this I have to thank Helmut Tischlinger who knew I was after one and extremely generously got hold of a spare and sent it my way, I am very grateful. You may well have seen one of these before however, as Larry Witmer got one early and included it on his big roundup of the whole schebang last year.

Not that I know much about coins (thought I’ve seen a hell of a lot over the years with the number of countries I’ve visited) but it is extremely well cast and the detail is impressive. It’s certainly a nice addition to my tiny collection of Archaeopteryx memorabilia (like this one), now I just need to find my Berlin medal….

Berlin Archaeopteryx

I have managed to get decent pictures of nearly every Archaeopteryx specimen on here at one time or another. For those who have missed out, there’s Daiting, Eichstaett, London, Bergermeister-Mueller, Thermopolis, the ‘new’ specimen, the ‘chicken wing’ (and a couple of others), and various ones in UV. One that has done badly as it were, is Berlin. The most famous of the lot and to date all I have shown is a grainy old image from when the leg feathers were still present. Finally though, here is a good quality photo of the whole thing.

Sadly for me, it’s not because I have been back to Berlin where this is now permanently on public display, but comes courtesy of Heinrich Mallison who kindly took this for me.


The historical impact of Archaeopteryx

Believe it or not, I’m trying to cut down on the Archaeopteryx posts but well, it is a big anniversary and it is such a very cool animal with many interesting and important facets to it’s scientific life that I don’t seem to be able to stop. One thing that really should get a mention is the small role it played it buoying up Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the initial publication of the Origin lead to rather  mixed reviews. While it did have a number of important and influential supporters, it also inevitably came in for some really strong criticism. Darwin has quite rightly noted a number of major problems with his own work and there were certainly some gaps that needed to be filled sooner or later. One of these (which is of course still ludicrously trumpeted by the creationists) was the apparent lack of transitional fossils. If Darwin was right and birds and mammals had come from reptiles, amphibians from fish and so one, then where were all those in-betweens?

The obvious short answer is that 150 years ago the fossil record had only just begun to be explored. We didn’t have many dinosaurs yet (which were nice and big and preserved in big numbers in well explored countries like the US and Belgium) let alone all manner of well, just about everything. Palaeontology as a field was only just getting going and there were very few researchers doing relatively little research and they’d not done much. We now of course have enormously detailed and complete transitional series for the origins of whales and amphibians and vertebrates and all kinds of others. We do of course also know a great deal about the origin of birds, but in addition to its important phylogenetic position, Archaeopteryx very publicly plugged one of those big gaps.

Coming to light a just a couple of years after the publication of the Origin, it was a clear and obvious fillup for Darwin and vindication of his ideas. Here was something that was obviously a bird (it had feathers) but obviously not quite a bird (it had teeth and a long tail and clawed fingers). It was part bird and part reptile –  a halfway house. Darwin obviously recognised the fact and it must have been enormously gratifying to see something like this turn up. In a letter to a colleague in 1893 he wrote:

“The fossil Bird with the long tail & fingers to its wings 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.”

And he also took a letter from another colleague that same year that clearly referenced this fact as well:

““You were never more missed—at any rate by me—for there has been this grand Darwinian case of the Archaeopteryx for you and me to have a long jaw about”.

Darwin was therefore well aware of just what Archaeopteryx could do for his ideas and as he notes, the birds had seemed an especially disparate group compared to other vertebrates yet here was an obvious transition, or at least possible connection, between birds and reptiles. Perhaps more importantly, this obviously was recognised by his colleagues as well and provided a strong case that the fossil record had much more to say about the theory of evolution and that what it would say might well support Darwin. The timing was really quite perfect then.

Thanks to Rich Tabor and Brian Switek for helping me track down those quotes.

Typical Type Problems

Returning to the theme of Archaeopteryx in its 150th anniversary it seemed a good opportunity to mention type specimens. I’ve generally steered clear of these in the past since I suspect most readers have a general idea of how things work and what types actually are and because I really didn’t want to sink deep into the depths of lectotypes and so on. However, there is a more common problem that Archaeopteryx can illustrate well so let’s crack on with that.

Type specimens in general are given special recognition in taxonomic work – these are if you like the ‘definitive’ specimens: the ones that stand out as being the recognised ‘identity’ of a species. As discussed in the ‘morphological species concept’ post, species can have several different definitions and there are various ways of defining things. In order to make sure everyone is talking about exactly the same thing, type specimens are erected to provide that literal physical basis of identity. Among types, the holotype is the most important. This single specimen is the one and all references to species identification should ultimately come back to the holotype.

For most of biology this is fine. You go out and find a new bird species say, collect some specimens, sort through them and when you describe it you name a holotype and maybe a few paratypes or whatever. You have the luxury of a whole set of specimens to pick through and can make sure your holotype really is typical and complete and contains every bit of information you think in should.

In palaeontology of course you generally don’t get a choice. Even if you are lucky enough to discover multiple specimens when finding something destined to be a new species, it’s unlikely that you’ll get a single and nice complete adult animal in good condition. Holotypes are almost inevitably incomplete, or crushed, or have key parts not clearly visible or who knows what and of course some are really based on very little material indeed – as little as a single bone. There’s nothing wrong with this really since if that’s all you have, that’s all you have. You can’t assume you’ll ever find another specimen of the same species (and that may not be any better than what you have already) so you have to go with what’s there and if it’s distinct and diagnosable then it should be named.

However, things can be distinct and diagnosable at the time and later loose that title as new discoveries show that what had appeared to be unique turn out to be common. On occasion though things can be pretty much undiagnostic to begin with. Enter Archaeopteryx stage left.

When it was first named, Archaeopteryx was just a feather (photo here on Pick and Scalpel). For all the famous specimens that attract all the attention, the original name was erected for a single bit of integument. Now arguably this was diagnostic in that there were no such things as Mesozoic birds at the time. I’m inclined to disagree with this since a separation of time and space is helpful to help separate out species, but hardly concrete evidence of genuine difference. In any case the rapid discovery of ‘real’ specimens of Archaeopteryx, and other birds, means that the feather is undiagnostic. There’s not really anything there that can be genuinely shown to be different to any other fossil feathers, or indeed those of many living birds. As a side problem, not only is the feather not diagnostic, but it’s also the holotype specimen.

That actually means that in theory at least, we don’t know what Archaeopteryx is. Or to be more specific, we don’t have an official holotype that is diagnostic. In practice of course we have important and complete specimens like those of London and Berlin that everyone accepts are members of this species and are distinct and diagnostic, so while this does need to be sorted out (and indeed the wheels are very much in motion on this) it’s not a huge problem. But it does provide an obvious illustration of these problems. I doubt there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t have a good mental image of what Archy really is, but I doubt that is just a single small feather, though technically, it should be.

My thanks to Paul Barrett for some info and fact checking on the status of the feather as holotype, Paul is part of the petition to get the London specimen designated as the new holotype.

The Eichstaett Archaeopteryx

Yesterday I made mention of Professor Franz Mayr and his relation to the Jura Museum in Eichstaett in southern Germany. And here, thanks to Helmut Tischlinger, is a photo of the man himself with the Eichstaett specimen of Archaeopteryx. The photo is from 1972 (just two years before he died) and was taken to mark the completion of the preparation work on the specimen that was undertaken by Prof. Mayr and Ludwig Meier.

Celebrating Archaeopteryx

Larry Witmer’s timely post on Archaeopteryx over on ‘Pick and Scalpel’ serves as a timely reminder for me to hurry up and finish several posts I have on this most important of taxa. For those who don’t know, 2011 represents the 150th anniversary of this animal coming to light and it is highly significant.

In his post Larry notes that the German’s are releasing a special commemorative 10 Euro coin to mark the occasion and I’ll certainly be after one. However, I already own a couple of Archaeopteryx medals that have been produced at various times. From the Humboldt Museum in Berlin I have one of the Berlin specimen (something I am told is no longer available) and from Eichstaett I have this one.

As you can see it has an image of the Eichstaett specimen on one side and the building that houses the Jura museum on the other. Also of interest is the inscription on the face “Creatura Clamat Creatorem” which thanks to Helmut Tischlinger I’m told translates as “The creature points to the creator” (or perhaps “calls for a creator”) but more importantly Helmut also offers an explanation for this. The ‘founder’ of the museum was a Catholic priest, Professor Franz Mayr and the museum sits in what was Willibald castle that was taken over by the state of Bavaria from the church in order to found the museum. However Mayr was no creationist but a firm supporter of evolution and (as you might guess from the ‘Professor’ bit) a scientific researcher. This quote of his about Archaeopteryx refers to a position more that such wonders of nature do reveal (to him at least) the glory of god. In short, it is more about the wonder of discovery and the beauty of the fossils, and I can hardly complain about that.

Archaeopteryx spectacular

Oh, maybe not *that* good, but here at least are three specimens (and counterplates, so even 5 kinda), all originals, courtesy of my recent trip to Munich. More has been written on this dinosaur / bird I suspect than any other with the possible exception of T. rex so I’m not going to add to that if I can avoid it. Anyway, here they are. A couple of photos are less than great, but come on, what do you want? You’ve got three Archaeopteryx, to go with a hatful of others I’ve provided in the past:

Continue reading ‘Archaeopteryx spectacular’

Yet another UV Archaeopteryx – this time out: Daiting

Archaeopteryx continues to be a very interesting an important taxon and despite the wealth of research that has been poured onto it, there is always more to come. Part of this stems from the general inaccessibility of the specimens since not all are held in museums. As noted before, the specimens of Archaeopteryx are generally referred to by the names of the places in which they reside or by other familiar terms. Thus we have the original isolated feather, the London, Berlin, Munich, Haarlem, Maxberg, Eichstaett, Solnhofen and Thermopolis specimens. Of these the Maxberg specimen is now missing – probably not lost but likely in a private collection somewhere. Far less well known are the Buergermeister-Mueller specimen (the Solnhofen specimen is also in this museum) and the Daiting specimen.

It is the latter that we are most interested in here since it has been in private hands for many years and only came to light recently as a cast. The original has now been made available for study however and my friend and colleague Helmut Tischlinger (he of UV Archaeopteryx-es, pterosaurs and Microraptor) has done an initial description, topped, inevitably with some beautiful photographs. Helmut as ever has been good enough to allow me to show some of them here.

As you can see there is a pretty good skull present, parts of both arms and a furcula jammed into the eye socket. There are also traces of bone sticking out through the broken edge of the matrix implying that more material might be present, but buried. Also of special interest is that the specimen is from sediments quite a bit younger than those of the other Archaeopteryx specimens suggesting that they had a decent temporal distribution and were not quite the flash in the pan they might first appear to be.

Birds of a (leg) feather

I’ve commented on the Musings before about the presence of feathers on the legs of Archaeopteryx an important aspect of their anatomy that had gone largely overlooked (or at least unremaked upon) for far too long and of course is more interesting in the light of fossils like the ‘four-winged’ Microraptor. While the idea that flight might have evolved from a four-winged stage (via elongate leg feathers to provide the extra wings) is interesting, one wonders why before Microraptor it had garnered so little attention. I’m referring really to birds like this vulture:
The elongate feathers on the leg are really pretty obvious here and indeed to anyone who ahs ever watched them fly, or other big birds of prey like eagles and buzzards the same thing is clear (especially when striking or coming in to land) – some birds have very Archaeopteryx like feathers on their legs. The question I would pose is just why were feathered legs on Archaeopteryx such a surprise, or for that matter those of Microraptor or Anchiornis? Anyone looking at a decent range of birds would see a clade that had very similar feathers clearly using them in an aerodynamically useful way (if largely to steer or break rather than to generate lift). It’s not hard to see that maybe an early bird or proto-bird still struggling to generate sufficient lift or power (or for that matter steering) might have benefited from an additional source of control and breaking. People have blindspots and before anyone asks, no I have not dug through the last 150 years of flight research to check how often four winged dinosaurs / leg feathers / control during the origin of flight were mentioned or expounded upon, but I would argue that: a) most people were surprised by the appearance of Microraptor / Archaeopteryx legs feathers (including a large number of specialists) and b) they really should not have been given that plenty of birds have and use them. As echoed recently in the SV-POW posts on necks, why do palaeontologists insist on working only on fossils when we have living animals to compare them to?

Note: I know the feathers themselves are quite different between living and extinct taxa are different and may not have been used in even vaguely similar ways, my point is that we can see birds do things with leg feathers now, so why was the possibility of leg feathers in the early evolution of birds ignored?

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