Darwin, Owen and the ‘London specimen’.

Portrait of Charles Darwin painted by George Richmond (1840)

Portrait of Charles Darwin painted by George Richmond (1840)

The Archaeopteryx story began in  the summer of 1861, two years after the publication of the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, when workers in a limestone quarry in Germany discovered the impression of a single 145-million-year-old feather. On August 15, 1861, German paleontologist Hermann von Meyer wrote a letter to the editor of the journal Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Palaeontologie, where he made the first description of the fossil. Later, on September 30, 1861, he wrote a new letter:  “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. 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”. 

The near complete fossil skeleton found in a Langenaltheim quarry near Solnhofen – with clear impressions of wing and tail feathers –  was examined by Andreas Wagner, director of the Paleontology Collection of the State of Bavaria in Germany. He reached the conclusion that the fossil was a reptile, and gave it the name Griphosaurus. He wrote: “Darwin and his adherents will probably employ the new discovery as an exceedingly welcome occurrence for the justification of their strange views upon the transformations of animals.”

Archaeopteryx lithographica, Archaeopterygidae, Replica of the London specimen; Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Karlsruhe, Germany. From Wikimedia Commons

Archaeopteryx lithographica, Archaeopterygidae, Replica of the London specimen; Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Karlsruhe, Germany. From Wikimedia Commons

The fossil was later bought by the British Museum of Natural History in London. Richard Owen, head of the Museum, was the first to describe the fossil and named it Archaeopteryx macrura, arguing that its identity with Meyer’s specimen could not be satisfactorily established (Owen 1862a, p. 33 n.). This fossil is also know as the London specimen. Owen, a fervent opponent of the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin, was convinced that all animals within each larger systematic group were only variations of a single theme, the ‘ideal archetype’.

Hugh Falconer, a Scottish geologist and paleontologist, saw the Archaeopteryx as a valid “transitional” fossil. At that time, he was in  a dispute with Owen, and pointed out that Owen’s description of the Archaeopteryx had missed some essential elements. On January 3, 1863, he wrote a letter to Darwin about the significance of this fossil:  “It is a much more astounding creature—than has entered into the the conception of the describer—who compares it with the Raptores & Passeres & Gallinaceæ, as a round winged (like the last) `Bird of flight.’ It actually had at least two long free digits to the fore limb—and those digits bearing claws as long and strong as those on the hind leg. Couple this with the long tail—and other odd things,—which I reserve for a jaw—and you will have the sort of misbegotten-bird-creature—the dawn of an oncoming conception `a la Darwin.”

Darwin answered that letter on January 20, 1863, and commented about Owen’s mistake: “Has God demented Owen, as a punishment for his crimes, that he should overlook such a point?. “

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Owen stands next to the largest of all moa, Dinornis maximus (now D. novaezealandiae). From Wikimedia Commons.

In later editions of The Origin of Species, Darwin mention the Archaeopteryx: “That strange bird, Archaeopteryx, with a long lizardlike tail, bearing a pair of feathers on each joint, and with its wings furnished with two free claws . . . Hardly any recent discovery shows more forcibly than this, how little we as yet know of the former inhabitants of the world.”



MEYER v., H. (1861): Archaeopterix lithographica (Vogel-Feder) und Pterodactylus von Solenhofen. Neues Jahrbuch fur Mineralogie, Geognosie, Geologie und Petrefakten-Kunde. 6: 678-679

Falconer, H. letter of January 3, 1863 to Charles Darwin; The Correspondence of Charles Darwin Vol. 11, edited by F. Furkhardt, DM Porter, S. A Dean, J. R Tophan, and S. Wilmot.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

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

Prothero, D. R.  Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. Columbia University Press, New York, 2007.

Peter Wellnhofer, A short history of research on Archaeopteryx and its relationship with dinosaurs, Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 343:237-250, doi:10.1144/SP343.14, 2010



Darwin Correspondence Project http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-3899


A brief introduction to the origin of Birds.

Archaeopteryx lithographica, specimen displayed at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Archaeopteryx lithographica, specimen displayed at the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Birds originated from a theropod lineage more than 150 million years ago. Their evolutionary history is one of the most enduring and fascinating debates in paleontology. In recent years, several discovered fossils of theropods and early birds have filled the morphological, functional, and temporal gaps along the line to modern birds. The discovered fossils demonstrate that distinctive bird characteristics such as feathers, flight, endothermic physiology, unique strategies for reproduction and growth, and a novel pulmonary system have a sequential and stepwise transformational pattern, with many arising early in dinosaur evolution, like the unusually crouched hindlimb for bipedal locomotion,the furcula and the “semilunate” carpal that appeared early in the theropod lineage (Allen et al., 2013; Xu et al., 2014).  Also, the discovery of Mahakala – a basal dromaeosaurid dinosaur named for one of the eight protector deities in Tibetan Buddhism – suggests that extreme miniaturization and laterally movable arms necessary for flapping flight are ancestral for paravian theropods. In contrast, a number of basal birds resemble theropods in many features.

Sin título

Sciurumimus (A); the basal coelurosaur Sinosauropteryx (B) with filamentous feathers; the deinonychosaurs Anchiornis (C) and Microraptor (D). Adapted from Xu et al., 2014.

Anatomical features like aspects of egg shape, ornamentation, microstructure, and porosity of living birds trace their origin to the maniraptoran theropods, such as oviraptorosaurs and troodontids. In addition, some preserving brooding postures, are known for four oviraptorosaurs, two troodontids, a dromaeosaur, and one basal bird providing clear evidence for parental care of eggs.

In birds, particularly their forebrains, are expanded relative to body size. The volumetric expansion of the avian endocranium began relatively early in theropod evolution. Archaeopteryx lithographica is volumetrically intermediate between those of more basal theropods and crown birds (Balanoff et al., 2013). The digital brain cast of Archaeopteryx also present an indentation that could be from the wulst, a neurological structure present in living birds used in information processing and motor control with two primary inputs: somatosensory and visual. Birds also exhibit the most advanced vertebrate visual system, with a highly developed ability to distinguish colors over a wide range of wavelengths.

Reconstruction of pulmonary components [cervical air-sac system (green), lung (orange), and abdominal air-sac system (blue)] in the theropod Majungatholus (From Xu et al., 2014)

Reconstruction of pulmonary components [cervical air-sac system (green), lung (orange), and abdominal air-sac system (blue)] in the theropod Majungatholus (From Xu et al., 2014)

Feathers were once considered to be unique avialan structures. The megalosaurus Sciurumimus, the compsognathus Sinosauropteryx, and a few other dinosaurs, document the appearance of primitive feathers. More recent studies indicated that non avian dinosaurs, as part of Archosauria, possessed the entirety of the known non keratin protein-coding toolkit for making feathers (Lowe et al., 2015)

The evolution of flight involved a series of adaptive changes at the morphological and molecular levels,like the fusion and elimination of some bones and the pneumatization of the remaining ones. The extensive skeletal pneumaticity in theropods such as Majungasaurus demonstrates that a complex air-sac system and birdlike respiration evolved in birds’ theropod ancestors. The increased metabolism associated with homeothermy and powered flight requires an efficient gas exchange process during pulmonary ventilation. Moreover, recent anatomical and physiological studies show that alligators, and monitor lizards exhibit respiratory systems and unidirectional breathing akin to those of birds, which indicate that unidirectional breathing is a primitive characteristic of archosaurs or an even more inclusive group with the complex air-sac system evolving later within Archosauria.

The earliest diversification of extant birds (Neornithes) occurred during the Cretaceous period and after the mass extinction event at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary, the Neoaves, the most diverse avian clade, suffered a rapid global expansion and radiation. Today, with more than 10500 living species, birds are the most species-rich class of tetrapod vertebrates.



Xing Xu, Zhonghe Zhou, Robert Dudley, Susan Mackem, Cheng-Ming Chuong, Gregory M. Erickson, David J. Varricchio, An integrative approach to understanding bird origins, Science, Vol. 346 no. 6215, DOI: 10.1126/science.1253293.

Puttick, M. N., Thomas, G. H. and Benton, M. J. (2014), HIGH RATES OF EVOLUTION PRECEDED THE ORIGIN OF BIRDS. Evolution, 68: 1497–1510. doi: 10.1111/evo.12363 A.

H. Turner, D. Pol, J. A. Clarke, G. M. Erickson, M. A. Norell, A basal dromaeosaurid and size evolution preceding avian flight. Science 317, 1378–1381 (2007).pmid: 17823350.

V. Allen, K. T. Bates, Z. Li, J. R. Hutchinson, Linking the evolution of body shape and locomotor biomechanics in bird-line archosaurs. Nature 497, 104–107 (2013). doi: 10.1038/nature12059; pmid: 23615616

A. M. Balanoff, G. S. Bever, T. B. Rowe, M. A. Norell, Evolutionary origins of the avian brain. Nature 501, 93–96 (2013). doi: 10.1038/nature12424; pmid: 23903660

M. S. Y. Lee, A. Cau, D. Naish, G. J. Dyke, Sustained miniaturization and anatomical innovation in the dinosaurian ancestors of birds. Science 345, 562–566 (2014). doi: 10.1126/science.1252243; pmid: 25082702

Craig B. Lowe, Julia A. Clarke, Allan J. Baker, David Haussler and Scott V. Edwards, Feather Development Genes and Associated Regulatory Innovation Predate the Origin of Dinosauria, Mol Biol Evol (2015) 32 (1): 23-28. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msu309