STL Science Center

STL Science Center

13 January 2012

Of A Feather

©M. Reichel 1941
Archaeopteryx (Ancient Wing)
Housing over fifteen names as specific synonyms and five generic synonyms, Archaeopteryx (sometimes Archeopteryx) is one of the most astounding holotype fossils ever found and amongst the first animals considered to be a bird. In 1861 a fossil feather was pulled out of a quarry in Germany, which it is debated may not actually belong to Archaeopteryx, and less than a year later an entire skeleton below the neck, the skull was missing, was taken from the ground near Langenaltheim, Germany and given to a physician named Karl Haberlein who, in turn, sold it to the London museum for about seven hundred pounds. This fossil, with feather impressions, was studied by Sir Richard Owen who named it Archaeopteryx marcura, the original feather described by von Meyer being called Archaeopteryx lithographica, because Owen was not sure that the feather and the skeleton fossils were identical species of the proto-bird. This specimen, The London Specimen, was the second of eleven that have been recovered. The other nine also have specific names given to them to differentiate them from one another based upon where they were found or where they reside now. They are the Berlin, Haarlem, Solnhofen, Eichstatt, Maxberg, Daiting, Munich, Burgermeister-Mullen, and Thermopolis specimens. The Thermopolis Specimen is the only specimen with a permanent residence in the United States at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. The eleventh specimen is privately owned and has not been given a name nor has it been fully described after being found in 2011, though it is supposedly one of the more complete specimens.

Archaeopteryx, as we shall see, is thought to be a transitional fossil between birds and dinosaurs by some, and the debate surrounding the issue is one of the more heated and talked about debates in paleontology these days. As one of the most highly studied of dinosaurs, or birds, or dino-birds, or neither, Archaeopteryx is a virtual wealth of knowledge and the topic is bloated with opinions from nineteen different angles including that the original fossils were a hoax and a forgery. However, we shall attempt to see all the angles that we possibly can and discuss them without ridiculing any side, which may seem very difficult when we look at all the opinions, because there are some extreme opinions surrounding this ancient feathered animal.

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