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September 30, 1861: The First Feather

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September 2011 marks the 150 years anniversary of the description of an important paleontological discovery – Archaeopteryx lithographica, the first Mesozoic bird recognized by science and considered at the time a compelling proof of Darwin’s theory, published just two years earlier.
In 1860 in a quarry near the village of Solnhofen (Bavaria) the faint imprint of a single feather was discovered on a slab of limestone.

Fig.1. The very first old feather…

Studying this feather (and informed of the discovery of a complete specimen) the German palaeontologist Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer proposed to establish the species Archaeopterix [sic*] lithographica in a short communication dated to 30, September 1861 – even if today it is not entirely clear if the feather can be linked to the specimens of the classic Archaeopteryx discovered in the same geological formation.

Fig.2. In this lithography commissioned in 1863 by Victorian palaeontologist Richard Owen the first specimen of Archaeoperyx lithographica, discovered in 1861 and today treasured in London, in all its feathered splendour is depicted.


MEYER v., H. (1861): Archaeopterix lithographica (Vogel-Feder) und Pterodactylus von Solenhofen. Neues Jahrbuch fur Mineralogie, Geognosie, Geologie und Petrefakten-Kunde. 6: 678-679
OWEN, R. (1863): On the Archaeopteryx of von Meyer, with a description of the fossil remains of a long-tailed species, from the lithographic stone of Solenhofen. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 153: 33-47

*In the table of contents the name Archaeopteryx is actually misspelled

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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