Huxley, Archaeopteryx and early research
Scientific investigation into the origin of birds began shortly after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In 1860, a fossilized feather was discovered in Germany’s Late Jurassic Solnhofen limestone. Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer described this feather as Archaeopteryx lithographica the next year. Richard Owen described a nearly complete skeleton in 1863, recognizing it as a bird despite many features reminiscent of reptiles, including clawed forelimbs and a long, bony tail.
Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his tenacious support of the new theory of evolution, almost immediately seized upon Archaeopteryx as a transitional fossil between birds and reptiles. Starting in 1868, and following earlier suggestions by Karl Gegenbaur, and Edward Drinker Cope, Huxley made detailed comparisons of Archaeopteryx with various prehistoric reptiles and found that it was most similar to dinosaurs like Hypsilophodon and Compsognathus. The discovery in the late 1870s of the iconic “Berlin specimen” of Archaeopteryx, complete with a set of reptilian teeth, provided further evidence. Huxley was the first to propose an evolutionary relationship between birds and dinosaurs. Although Huxley was opposed by the very influential Owen, his conclusions were accepted by many biologists, including Baron Franz Nopcsa, while others, notably Harry Seeley, argued that the similarities were due to convergent evolution. Read more