Thursday, November 1, 2018

Ancient Interpretations of Ancient Birds.

Our understanding of the Origin of Birds has grown exponentially over the last two decades, thanks in part to the early 1990s discovery of spectacularly preserved bird fossils in the northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning.

Juts prior to that, John Ostrom of Yale University discovered a new theropod dinosaur in Montana called Deinonychus. Here, Ostrom laid out the many similarities between birds and theropod dinosaurs, leading to new ideas about dinosaur metabolism and activity levels, forming what is known as the dinosaur renaissance, which began in the 1970s and continues to this day.

Lost in today’s highly publicized discoveries are the early publications regarding ancient birdlife.

No, I’m not referring to Gerhard Heilmann. Heilmann was a Danish artist and paleontologist who created artistic depictions of Archaeopteryx, Proavis and other early bird relatives apart from writing The Origin of Birds (1926), a pioneering and influential account of bird evolution.

Though he was incredibly important to the topic of bird origins overall, Heilmann’s writings and artwork can be looked at today as more of a bridge to older, forgotten efforts.

The 1800’s were a critical period of change in geology, paleontology and natural history. The term “Dinosaur” is established in 1842 by British anatomist Richard Owen. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859. Archaeopteryx, the transitional fossil was discovered in Germany in 1861.

Masterful for their time, and still very much relevant today were works such as Ichnology of New England, by Reverend Edward Hitchcock published in 1858, and Othniel Charles Marsh’s Odontornithes: A Monograph on the Extinct Toothed Birds of North America, published in 1880. 

Othniel Charles Marsh
Image Credit: Wikipedia
However, there were other publications from the 1800’s that also provided a glimpse of what earth was like millions of years ago. Two of those books have now become part of my own personal collection; The World Before the Deluge by Louis Figuier (1866) and Creatures of Other Days by Reverend H.N. Hutchinson (1894). 

The World Before The Deluge and Creatures Of Other Days
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
While not intended to be a true book review, todays posting is a rather quick peek at some very early artwork and writings concerning non-bird dinosaurs and archaic birds.

Let’s start with the older of the two books, The World Before the Deluge by Louis Figuier (1866).

Louis Figuier (15 February 1819 – 8 November 1894) was a French scientist and writer. He was the nephew of Pierre-Oscar Figuier and became Professor of chemistry at L'Ecole de pharmacie of Montpellier. 

Louis Figuier
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Based on the title, it’s no surprise that The World Before the Deluge is written with a creator in mind. Like other scientists of the day, Figuier’s focus was natural theology, which attempted to unify and reconcile science and religion.

In his 448-page book, we find a classic passage clearly expressing Figuier’s thoughts on the workings of the natural world.

     [Cuvier says of the Plesiosaurus, “that it presents the most monstrous assemblage of characteristics that has been met with among the races of the ancient world.” It is not necessary to take this expression literally; there are no monsters in nature; the laws of organization are never positively infringed; and it is more accordant with the general perfection of creation to see in an organization so special, in a structure which differs so notably from that of the animals of our days, the simple augmentation of a type, and sometimes also the beginning and successive perfecting of these beings. We shall see, in examining the curious series of animals of the ancient world, that the organization and physiological functions go on improving unceasingly, and each of the extinct genera which preceded the appearance of man., present for each organ, modifications which always tend toward greater perfection, The fins of the fishes of the Devonian seas become the paddles of the Ichthyosaurii and of the Plesiosaurii; these, in their turn, become the membranous foot of the Pterodactyle, and, finally the wing of the bird. Afterwards come the articulated fore-foot of the terrestrial mammalia, which, after attaining remarkable perfection in the hand of the ape, becomes, finally, the arm and hand of man; an instrument of wonderful delicacy and power, belonging to an enlightened being gifted with the divine attribute of reason! Let us, then, dismiss the idea of monstrosity, which can only mislead us, and only consider the antediluvian beings as digressions. Let us look on them, not with disgust; let us learn, on the contrary, to read in the plan traced for their organization, the work of the Creator of all things, as well as the plan of creation.]

World Before the Deluge by Louis Figuier
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
Though his works are highly respected, it is often unmentioned that he was in fact a staunch racist of the time. Figuier played a key role in perpetuating the blatantly myopic misconception that people of black origin were mentally inferior, were not fully human, smelled poorly, and were promiscuous. His citing of these ill-formed concepts is of course not true, yet he remains celebrated in his "achievements".

Despite his views of the world, and people, Figuier employed a variety of well-accomplished artists for his publications. One of Figuiers favorites is Édouard Riou.

Édouard Riou (2 December 1833 – 27 January 1900) was a French painter and illustrator who illustrated six novels by Jules Verne, as well as several other well-known works.

Edouard Riou
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Providing one of the very first images of Archaeopteryx in print is the artist who I believe is Auguste Faguet. Faguet (1841–1886) was a noted 19th-century French botanical illustrator, well known for his contributions to major botanical works.

World Before the Deluge by Louis Figuier
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
Did Faguet find time in his busy, short life to help illustrate The Deluge is still not for certain? Scrawled initials at the bottom of the Bird of Solenhofen and the Ideal Landscape of the Upper Oolitic Period, is all that suggests he was. Riou, on the other hand, is the only artist credited by name on the title page. 

The World Before the Deluge by Louis Figuier
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
Of the Bird of Solenhofen Figuier writes;

     [The most remarkable fact which occurs in this period is the appearance of the first bird. Hitherto the Mammalia, and these only imperfectly-organized species, namely, the marsupials, have alone appeared. It is interesting to witness birds appearing immediately after. In the quarries of lithographic stone at Solenhofen, the remains of a bird, with feet and feathers, have been found, but without the head. These curious remains are represented in Fig. 119, in the position in which they were discovered. It is usually designated the bird of Solenhofen].

Three decades later we find another publication dedicated to the understanding of prehistoric life; Creatures of Other Days by Reverend H.N. Hutchinson (1894).

Creatures of Other Days by Reverend H.N. Hutchinson
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
Henry Neville Hutchinson (1856-1927) was an Anglican clergyman and, during the 1890s, a leading writer of popular books on geology, paleontology, evolution and anthropology.

Though knowledge of bird life of former ages was rather sparse at the time, Hutchinson is still able to devote an entire chapter on ancient birds, thanks in part to the new discovery of Cretaceous-aged fossils of Hesperornis and Ichthyornis.

Creatures of Other Days by Reverend H.N. Hutchinson
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
It is written of Hesperornis and Ichthyornis;

     [It may fairly be concluded that, for a long period of time, circumstances were eminently favorable to Hesperornis and its allies, for apparently it had no enemies in the air above, and an abundance of food in the water. We may well imagine that it was more than a match for the gigantic toothless Pterodactyls (such as Pteranodon) which hovered over the waters here in such great numbers, and the other inhabitants of the air all appear to be small. The ocean in which the bird swam teemed with fishes of many kinds, and thus a great variety of food, easily obtainable, was at hand. In this aquatic paradise Hesperornis flourished, disturbed only by the serpentine Mosasaurus, which may have been the cause of its extermination. Another bird discovered by Professor Marsh in the same region, also with strangely blended characters, is the Ichthyornis. Unlike the big diver above described, it had well-developed wings and a strongly keeled sternum for the attachment of muscles with which to work its wing. It was about the size of a rock-pigeon. The jaws were armed with teeth placed in distinct sockets, as in some extinct reptiles. The wing bones show that it possessed considerable powers of flight. Here we may note that the Cretaceous birds at present known were apparently all aquatic forms, which, of course, are most likely to be preserved in marine deposits, while the Jurassic Archaeopteryx was a land bird].

It is interesting to note that in the previous chapter we see both Hesperornis and Ichthyornis depicted as inhabiting a terrestrial landscape with other large herbivorous dinosaurs. How did this happen? Was there some type of miscommunication between the author and artist? How could Hesperornis and Ichthyornis end up in a terrestrial landscape after Hutchinson himself clearly states that “Cretaceous birds at present known were apparently all aquatic forms”??

Creatures of Other Days by H.N. Hutchinson
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
The artist, Joseph Smit (18 July 1836 – 4 November 1929), was a Dutch zoological illustrator.

In spite of this error, Joseph Smit does a remarkable job overall with his illustrations in the Hutchinson book.

Smit was born in Lisse.  He received his first commission from Hermann Schlegel at the Leiden Museum to work on the lithographs for a book on the birds of the Dutch East Indies. In 1866 he was invited to Britain by Philip Sclater to do the lithography for Sclater's Exotic Ornithology; he prepared a hundred images for the book.

Smit’s artwork in Creatures of Other Days also hits close to home for me with his rendition of Anchisaurus, the oldest known dinosaur. 

Creatures of Other Days by Reverend H.N. Hutchinson
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
Hutchinson’s comments on Anchisaurus; [As far back as the year 1818, a portion of a skeleton was discovered in the Connecticut Valley, near Windsor (CT). Another was found near Springfield (MA), and described by Hitchcock, in 1865, under the name Megadactylus. Later on, in the year 1884, Professor Marsh announced another discovery, near Manchester, Connecticut].

These locations, incidentally, are a minutes-drive from my place of birth.  

As a religious figurehead of the late 1800’s, Hutchinson takes a surprising open minded, and cordial position on the origin of birds, as well as evolution;

     [When did the bird make its first appearance, or debut, on the earth? In other words, when did that primitive, but as yet unknown reptile from which the feathered tribe came, first take to itself feathers and assume both the habits and appearance of a bird? This is one of those interesting questions which remain to be solved by the labors of the paleontologists, or, more probably, of a generation of paleontologists. We have already alluded to Professor Huxley’s theory that birds are descended from Dinosaurs; but though there is much to be said in favor of the idea, we prefer, for our part, to wait and see what evidence may turn up on this subject. Sir R. Owen never favored the theory, and, for all paleontologists can tell, it may just as well be that birds and pterodactyls (flying reptiles) both are descended from a common stock; one line choosing to fly by means of a thin membrane attached chiefly to a single long finger, while the other thought they could do quite well, in fact better, by growing feathers on their arm and fingers. All great problems in nature are solved slowly, by the patient accumulation of evidence; and the one above alluded to is no exception to the rule].


Information regarding author and artists were all found through Wikipedia.

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