Sunday, 24 May 2009

The First Pterosaur

The Handbuch der Palaohepetologie, Teil 19, Pterosauria, starts;

"Der erste Pterosaurier wurde im Jahre 1784 von Cosmus Collini beschrieben und abgebildet (Abb. 1). Es handelte sich um das vollständige Skelett eines Pterodactylus aus den Solnhofener Schichten von Eichstätt und lag seinerzeit in Naturalinkabinett der kurpfälzischen Akademi zu Mannheim. Es ist der spätere Holotypus zu Pterodactylus antiquus (Soemmering) und befindet sich heute in der Bayerischen Stattsammlung für Paläontologie und historisch Geologie in München."

"The first Pterosaur was described in 1784 by Cosmus Collini and was illustrated (Fig 1). It was a complete skeleton of a Pterodactylus from the Solnhofen Shales of Eichstätt and it was kept at this time in the Naturalinkabinett kurpfälzischen Akademi at Mannheim. It is the current Holotype to Pterodactylus antiquus (Soemmering) and today is in the Bavarian State Museum for Palaeontology and Historical Geology in Munich."

The fossil was originally held in the Palace at Manheim where it was part of a collection of natural artefacts. Such objects as fossils had usually been considered as evidence of the biblical flood at that time, though scientific attitudes were changing. The fossil, which was owned by Karl Theodore was examined by Collini in 1757. Cosmo Collini was a Florentine academic from Italy, who had a keen interest in the natural world.

Collini recognized this fossil as an amphibious sea creature, which was a fair consideration as he had nothing to compare it with. Johann Frederick Blumenbach had also examined the fossil and in 1807 he pronounced that it was an unusual water bird. The thinking about this fossil was moving in the right direction.

George Cuvier was probably the most respected mind working in this field and in 1809 he recognised the fossil skull as reptilian in structure and identified the pectoral extremities as wings. He considered the fossil to have a membrane of skin stretched out along the wing fingers which would have formed a wing structure. This idea was quite perceptive and captured the agreement of many of his peers at that time. It was Cuvier who named the fossil Pterodactylus (Winged Finger). There were some disagreements and in 1812 Samuel Thomas von Soemmerring considered the fossil to be mammalian and bat like, being in disagreement about a reptile being able to produce enough energy for flight.

With the discovery of more fossils in the following years, it became clear that these creatures were flying animals with associations to the Reptilia. By 1840 it was generally accepted that Pterodactyles were flying creatures with an unusual wing structure supported on a long flight finger. The hollow bones were becoming more easily recognised and many partial specimens that were thought to be of bird bones could be re-classified as pterosaur.

Holotype: No. AS-I-1739 Bayerischen Stattsammlung für Paläontologie und historisch Geologie

Collini, C A. 1784 Sur quelques Zoolithes du Cabinet d’Histoire naturelle de S. A. S. E. Palatine & de Bavière, à Mannheim. Acta Theodoro-Palatinae Mannheim 5 Pars Physica, pp. 58–103 (1 plate).

Wellnhofer, P. & Khun, O. 1978 Handbuch der Paläoherpetologie. Teil 19. Pterosauria. Stuttgart: Verlag Gustav Fischer.

von Soemmerring, S. T. 1812 Über einen Ornithocephalus oder über das unbekannten Thier der Vorwelt, dessen Fossiles Gerippe Collini im 5. Bande der Actorum Academiae Theodoro-Palatinae nebst einer Abbildung in natürlicher Grösse im Jahre 1784 beschrieb, und welches Gerippe sich gegenwärtig in der Naturalien-Sammlung der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu München befindet. Denkschr. k. bayer. Akad. Wiss. math.-phys. Kl. 3, 89–158, plates.

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