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Re: Help with meaning "Urschwinge" for name Archaeopteryx
From: Ben Creisler
Thanks for the onlist and offlist responses! It turns out that
Wellnhofer’s 2009 book Archaeopteryx: Icon of Evolution makes no
mention of the term “Urschwinge” for Archaeopteryx, and there appears
to be no foundation for stating that this was the common translation
of Archaeopteryx used by German scholars during the 19th century. The
English-language Wikipedia articles Archaeopteryx and Specimens of
Archaeopteryx, which both make this claim without citing a source,
need to be revised.
Many thanks especially to Evelyn for finding the links about the early
use of Urvogel! Here are some results from my own research:
The term Urvogel as "first bird" or "original bird" was sometimes used
in German folklore. The goose was said to be the “Urvogel” for water
birds, and turned into a swan by constantly stretching its neck to
reach food on the bottom of ponds.
The first official scientific usage was von Meyer in 1844 for
Protornis, which he translated as Urvogel in German.
Urvogel has been used in three main ways in association with Archaeopteryx.
1. A descriptive term more like "primitive bird" or “primordial bird”
rather than "der Urvogel" ["THE first bird"]:
The earliest reference I can find is this passage from Neues Jahrbuch in 1863.
It comes as part of summary of papers by A. Oppel in 1862. Oppel
described some unusual tracks from the Solnhofen (in fact, horseshoe
crab (limulid) tracks!) that he thought might have been made by the
newly found Archaeopteryx or Griphosaurus. Oppel did not use the term
"Urvogel," however. (The same tracks were later (again, mistakenly)
attributed to a supposed pterosaur with a long tail such as
The author of the summary in Neues Jahrbuch could be the paleontology
editor at the time Bruno Geinitz. The term "von diesem Urvogel"
clearly means something like “from this primordial bird” rather than
using Urvogel as the special epithet of Archaeopteryx.
Das Thier scheint mit beiden Füssen gleichzeitig fortgehüpft zu seyn,
wie es Vögel oft zu thun pflegen, und es ist bei der Übereinstimmung
der Form, Stellung und Zahl der nach vorn gerichteten Zehen mit jenen
der Federn tragenden Archaeoptyerx lithographica Myr. wohl möglich,
dass diese Fährten gerade von diesem Urvogel herrühren, in welchem
Falle allerdings die kleine vierte Zehe seines Fusses keinen Abdruck
hinterlassen haben würde.
The animal appears to have hopped forward with both feet at the same
time, as birds are often in the habit of doing; and it is entirely
possible, given the correspondence of the form, placement, and number
of the forward-directed toes with those of the feather-bearing
Archaeoperyx lithographica Myr., that these tracks come from this
Urvogel [primordial bird], in which case, though, no impression of the
small fourth toe on its foot would have been left.
2. A special epithet to indicate the first known bird, or most often
for Darwinists and other evolutionists, the evolutionary link between
reptiles and birds.
The following article was published in 1867 by the early German
Darwinist Friedrich Rolle:
Rolle, F. 1867. Der Archaeopteryx oder Urvogel der Jura-Zeit.[The
Archaeopteryx or Urvogel of the Jurassic Age] Hertha (1): 71-78.
Unfortunately, I have not been able to find this article online.
Google books has an earlier version of the journal Hertha (edited by
Alexander von Humboldt) online, but not the later issues edited by
Rolle. Has anyone seen this paper?
3. The supposed meaning of the name Archaeopteryx itself (contrary to
As Evelyn found, Karl Zittel gave the meaning “Urvogel” for
Archaeopteryx in a book written for a popular audience in 1872.
An even earlier apparent example comes from Oswald Heer 1865 in Die
Urwelt der Schweiz [Primeval Switzerland]:
hier hauste auch der älteste Vogel, der aus der Vorwelt auf uns
gekommen ist, der langschwänzige Urvogel (Archaeopterix macrurus
here lived as well the oldest bird that has come to us from the
primeval world, the longtailed Urvogel (Archaeopterix macrurus Owen).
[I left the spelling as-is]
However, elsewhere in the same book the term Urvogel is also used for
von Meyer’s Protornis, a fossil bird found in Switzerland itself.
This later etymology from Leunis 1883 shows that it was well
established in German sources
Arkhaios uranfänglich, alt, pteryx Flügel, Vogel; Urvogel.
[Arkhaios primeval, old, pteryx wing, bird; Urvogel [first bird, primeval bird]]