Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight

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9780684849652: Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight

Book by Shipman Pat

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In 1861, just a few years after the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, a scientist named Hermann von Meyer made an amazing discovery. Hidden in the Bavarian region of Germany was a fossil skeleton so exquisitely preserved that its wings and feathers were as obvious as its reptilian jaws and tail. This transitional creature offered tangible proof of Darwin's theory of evolution.

Hailed as the First Bird, Archaeopteryx has remained the subject of heated debates for the last 140 years. Are birds actually living dinosaurs? Where does the fossil record really lead? Did flight originate from the "ground up" or "trees down"? Pat Shipman traces the age-old human desire to soar above the earth and to understand what has come before us. Taking Wing is science as adventure story, told with all the drama by which scientific understanding unfolds.

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Prologue: A Flight of Fancy

There are seven specimens, and a feather.

It is not much to document the origin of bird flight. Strictly speaking, these specimens are not the entire body of evidence. There are, of course, other fossil birds, not to mention bats, pterodactyls, and insects that have a few things to say about bird flight. And there are living creatures, mathematical models, and aerodynamic theories to help us understand this amazing evolutionary accomplishment. Nonetheless, these seven specimens are crucial. They lie at the heart of complex debates that began with the discovery of the first specimen of "Archaeopteryx" more than 130 years ago and continue up until today. These few, special fossils have served as the basis for brilliant deductions, wild speculations, penetrating analyses, and amazing insights. They have revealed -- and continue to reveal -- not only the pathway through which birds and bird flight may have originated, but they also tell us much about the strengths and weaknesses of science and scientists.

Only seven precious specimens: as I have learned of them, I have been struck by their paradoxical nature. Seven specimens seem paltry evidence to tell the world everything about a lost animal, yet few extinct species are so well-known. Remarkably, among these seven is perhaps the most beautiful fossil in the world. It is the Berlin "Archaeopteryx, " an exquisite slab and counterslab that capture an extraordinary moment in evolution, when reptiles were turning into birds. No special training is required to see what the Berlin "Archaeopteryx" is; its wings and feathers are as obvious as the teeth in its reptilian jaws and thhat exemplifies them all,combining fragility and grace with enormous emotional and intellectual power.

All known specimens of "Archaeopteryx" come from one special place, in the Bavarian region of Germany. It is a small window through which we can peer at an ancient world. Some 150 million years ago, a few individuals of "Archaeopteryx" died and fell into the still waters of ancient Solnhofen, a shallow lagoon fringed with mud flats and bottomed in finegrained muds that had been deposited for tens of millions of years. When an "Archaeopteryx" died -- of accident, injury, or simple old age -- its carcass sank beneath the waters, becoming buried deep in these calcareous sediments, as did the remains of the insects, pterosaurs, fish, crustaceans, nautiloids, and other creatures that lived in or near the lagoon -- including a small theropod dinosaur, "Compsognathus, " whose presence proved fateful. The mud sealed it from further decay and destruction, protecting and preserving each anatomical detail as the body was infiltrated and replaced by stone. In time, the sediments consolidated into a fine-grained limestone. Still later, in the nineteenth century, these limestones were prized by humans as the perfect medium for detailed lithographic printing. Solnhofen limestone is so smooth that it will take the sharpest lines, conveying the subtlest textures that can be created by the artist's hand. This happenstance -- the value of Solnhofen limestone for printing -- was an essential ingredient in the strange story of "Archaeopteryx." Stone, of course, has many potential uses, and the Solnhofen limestone has been quarried for paving-stones since Roman times. Only in the later ninetee nth century did lithographybecome so important that these wonderfully fine-grained stones were rendered valuable rather than simply useful, As a result, a painstaking process of hand-quarrying (still practiced today) began that led directly to the discovery of "Archaeopteryx" and many other fine fossils. Each slab of Solnhofen limestone is chiseled out by hand, split, inspected for flaws, sorted, and then often trimmed further to the exact dimensions required. From start to finish, sometimes as many as a dozen skilled quarrymen examine each surface of each slab with care, so fossils are not missed even though they are not intentionally sought. Only the coincidence of the needs of the artist and of "Archaeopteryx" accounts for this fact. More mechanized quarrying -- the rule elsewhere -- would have certainly destroyed the fossils.

But "Archaeopteryx" is more than the world's most beautiful fossil. Its status is singular, despite the seven specimens. It has been a celebrity among fossils almost from the first moment of its discovery. "Archaeopteryx" holds a place in the heart and minds of the public, and of paleontologists, that is unparalleled by any other species. Children and grown-ups alike stare openmouthed at the specimens on exhibit, wondering at their completeness and strangeness. The same awe is experienced by paleontologists confronted with the original specimens, too. To understand this phenomenon, you

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