Monday, December 13, 2010


Living a few 150 million years ago, Archaeopteryx sported feathers and a saurine skeleton. Standing on the brink among dinosaurs and birds, Archaeopteryx has long symbolized the concept of transitional species so instinctively significant in the acceptance of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Its fossils have been museum beloved ever since the first fossil feather of the so-called Urvogel or “first bird” was discovered Germany in 1860.

The image above demonstrates the so-called Berlin Archaeopteryx unearthed in about 1875, the most complete fossil representative of the species we have. But it’s worth bearing in mind that what we see here is not the creature, nor an anatomical specimen set from an extant animal. A fossil is an image; after the body comes to rest in moist sediments, minerals fill in and put back organic compounds lost to decompose, forming a type of photograph-in-stone of a creature’s most durable anatomy.

When paleontologist Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer explained the fossil feather in 1861, he named the species Archaeopteryx lithographica—the specific epithet a recognition of the significance of an image-making process found in the Earth’s crust. But similar to any graphic medium, the fossil record is prejudiced and incomplete; only certain type of creatures in certain environmental conditions ever attain the timeless apotheosis of fossilization. Earth’s picture album of life is extremely informative, and yet partial.

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