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Manfred Reichel’s Archaeopteryxes and the origin of feathered dinosaurs

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By Ilja Nieuwland

While the rest of the world was dedicating way too much time and resources to exterminating one another, Switzerland remained a relatively tranquil spot in 1941 Europe. In that year, the micropaleontologist Manfred Reichel published an article outlining his views on the ‘first bird’, Archaeopteryx lithographica. Reichel’s text but particularly his illustrations are at least partly inspired by the work of Gerhard Heilmann in his very influential The Origin of Birds, a book that was to dominate the field of avian and flight evolution for decades afterwards. And like Heilmann, the exquisite artwork serves to support the ideas set out in the article. And like Heilmann, Reichel can be very critical of earlier ideas.

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There are differences, though. For one thing, he is less concerned with using Archaeopteryx as a mirror to demonstrate all the animal’s evolutionary affinities than with showing it as a feasible, living creature. This is a fairly rare occurrence in the history of Archaeopteryx’s depiction, especially because its chimera-like nature, half-reptile and half-bird, has made it such a contested creature. The trend has therefore often been to draw it as something between a crocodile and a chicken, as well, but the result has rarely looked like anything that might actually have been alive at some point.

Reichel’s beautiful drawings do work, and the article explains why. He maintains that Archaeopteryx’s appearance was dominated by his ‘perfect’ plumage, which concealed a still very reptilian skeleton. Reichel goes even further by stating that:

Rien n’empeche de la croire extrêmement ancienne et d’emplumer de la tête au pieds les obscurs petits sauriens aux allures d’écureuils qui étaient destinés à avoir nos oiseaux dans leur lointaine postérité (Nothing prevents us to believe that this [plumage is] extremely old and covered these obscure, small, squirrel-like saurians, which were to have the birds as their distant offspring, from head to toe).

From the article is becomes clear that Reichel extends this to earlier creatures such as the hypothetical Proavis, but also Archaeopteryx’s other kin. The idea of feathered dinosaurs may therefore not be as new as we often think.

Source: M. Reichel, « l’Archéoptéryx. Un ancêtre des Oiseaux », in : Nos Oiseaux. Bulletin de la Société Romande pour l’étude et la Protection des Oiseaux, No. 159 (Décembre 1941), pp. 93-107 (avec dessins de l’auteur). (PDF file)

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