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Re: Help with meaning "Urschwinge" for name Archaeopteryx

From: Ben Creisler

Many thanks to Evelyn for the information on "Urschwinge" and its
connection with Archaeopteryx! Because the English-language Wikipedia
does not cite a source for the claim that Urschwinge "was the favored
translation of Archaeopteryx among German scholars in the late 19th
century," I am not convinced. I have checked various online sources
with digital texts in German (including Biodiversity Heritage Library,
Google Books) and have not found any support for the claim. However, I
do not have a copy of Wellnhofer's 2009 book to check to see what he

The meaning Hermann von Meyer had in mind for Archaeopteryx was almost
certainly "ancient feather" rather than "ancient wing " or " ancient
bird." He had at least four reasons for the choice: 1) the only
specimen he had seen in person and described was the single fossil
feather,  2) he rejected Cuvier's theory that  one part of an animal
could be used to predict what the rest of the animal was like,  3) he
did not think that an animal with feathers was of necessity a bird,
and 4) the report of a skeleton of an animal with feathers that
differed from modern birds (a specimen he had not seen).

Unfortunately, his wording in the short notice in September 1861 is
rather ambiguous as to which "animal" he was naming Archaeopteryx.
Much of this problem was discussed during the ICZN debate about making
the London specimen the official type specimen.

What is sometimes overlooked and complicates the issue are later
comments von Meyer made about Archaeopteryx.
Von Meyer himself gave the following explanation published in 1868
(but likely written earlier) with my own working translation (German
speakers, please suggest improvements!):

In Palaeontographica XV : 247 (1865-1868), von Meyer explained his
later view of Archaeopteryx:

Sie [die Feder] rührt aus dem dem oberen Jura angehörigen
lithographischen Schiefer von Solenhofen her, und lässt sich in
keinerlei Weise von den Federn der Vögel underscheiden, was um so
auffallender ist, da sie doch von keinem wirklichen Vogel stammt, wie
die bald darauf erfolgte Auffindung des fast vollständigen Skelets,
welches in das Brittische Museum gekommen ist, dargethan hat. Ich habe
das Thier Archaeopteryx lithographica genannt and als einen ebenso
eigenthümlichen Typus von Flugthieren wie Pterodactylus mit diesem zu
den Reptilien, woran der lithographische Schiefer einen wahren Schatz
besitzt, gestellt; während Owen (Philos. Trans. London, 1863....) es
für den Prototypus der Vögel hält and diesen beizählt.

It [the feather] came out of the Upper-Jurassic-age  lithographic
slate of Solnhofen and can be distinguished in no way from the feather
of a bird. What is even more remarkable is that it is in fact not
derived from a true bird, as shown by the discovery very shortly
thereafter of a nearly complete skeleton, which has come into the
possession of the British Museum. I have named the animal
Archaeopteryx lithographica and have placed it among the reptiles (of
which the lithographic slate holds a veritable treasure trove) as just
as peculiar a type of flying animal as the likewise reptilian
Pterodactylus. By contrast, Owen (Philos. Trans. London, 1863....)
considers it the prototype of the bird and counts it as one of these

This passage seems to imply that von Meyer named both the feather and
the skeleton Archaeopteryx, as representing the same kind of animal.
However, this view could be a later modification of his ideas and may
not be what he thought or intended at the time he named Archaeopteryx
in 1861. Nevertheless, I think at the time he named Archaeopteryx in
print in 1861, with knowledge of the feathered skeleton, he did not
think it was a bird.

Von Meyer NEVER referred to Archaeopteryx as the "Urvogel"--in fact,
he had given the German meaning "Urvogel" for his name Protornis in
1844. At the time, the fossils from Glarus in Switzerland were thought
to date from the Cretaceous based on research by Agassiz. This made
the fossil bird from Glarus the earliest then known, hence von Meyer's
choice of the name Protornis "first bird." However, the Scottish
geologist Roderick Murchison redated the Glarus material to the Eocene
in 1848 (now dated to the Oligocene) so Protornis was no longer the
oldest known bird--other bird fossils were already known from the

Von Meyer also did not accept the identification of the fossils tracks
(said to be Triassic in age) in New England as those of giant birds
(in fact, dinosauran), stating in 1862 in translation that:

"But Ichnology, or the whole theory of fossil footprints, reposes only
upon phenomena of resemblance; and although philosophers of the
highest rank are to be found among its defenders, and its literature
has acquired great dimensions, it is still destitute of a scientific

I'm still researching how the term Urvogel became the special epithet
of Archaeopteryx. However, for many reasons "Urvogel" was the NOT the
meaning von Meyer intended for the name Archaeopteryx itself.