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|A Gradual Science|
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Paleornithology is the study of fossil birds. It has an extremely rich history, despite the popular impression that bird fossils are rare and of no use in understanding the evolution of these most marvelous of the vertebrates (Olson 1976). Paleornithology effectively has its origins in the 1861 discovery and subsequent description of Archaeopteryx lithographica, from the Solnhofen Basin of Bavaria, Germany. The 1880 publication by O. C. Marsh of Odontornithes, one of the most beautiful monographic treatments of ancient birds to ever appear, summarized the results of collections in the Niobrara Chalk of the Upper Cretaceous of Kansas. From these limestones Hesperornis and Ichthyornis, two archaic ornithurine birds were described, providing powerful evidence at the time for the evolutionary history of birds (previously much disputed, e.g., see Owen's review of Archaeopteryx in 1863). Subsequent ornithological work included the formulation of comprehensive phylogenies of Aves, (e.g. Furbinger 1888), which touched on the known avian fossil record. Gerhard Heilmann dealt extensively with the Mesozoic record of birds in his 1926 tome The Origin of Birds, undertaking what was at the time the most thorough and exhaustive comparative analysis of both extant and extinct birds in an attempt to sort out avian phylogeny. In 1933 Hungarian ornithologist Kalman Lambrecht authored the first major review of the fossil record of birds.
The modernist era in paleornithology is essentially due to the efforts of three individuals: Dr. Alexander Wetmore of the United States National Museum (Smithsonian Institution), Hildegarde Howard of the so-called "California school", and Pierce Brodkorb at the University of Florida. Together these three kept a discipline that scarcely attracted attention or interest alive for nearly a century, and their contribution to paleornithology, from which any modern study must start, cannot be justly estimated. All three of these individuals, but particularly Dr. Wetmore and Dr. Brodkorb, produced extensive catalogues of the Tertiary avifauna of the United States and other regions, from which much of our current knowledge about the class Aves during the Tertiary originates. These researchers were also involved in the description of some of the most important taxa for understanding the early evolution of crown clade Aves (e.g., Wetmore described Presbyornis in 1924 as a recurvirostrid).
The post-modernist era owes much to the work of Dr. Storrs Olson, Director of Ornithology at the USNM, Dr. Alan Feduccia at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Dr. Larry Martin at the University of Kansas, Dr. Cecile Mourer-Chauvire, who has worked extensively on the avifauna of the Quercy phosphorites, Dr. Stefan Peters, Dr. Evgeny Kurochkin, Zhou Zhonghe and Hou Lianhai, the principal Chinese experts on the Mesozoic avifauna of that country, Gerald Mayr of the Forschungsinstitut Senckenburg, Dr. Peter Houde, Dr. Luis M. Chiappe of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Dr. Joel Cracraft of the American Museum of Natural History, Dr. Gareth Dyke of University College Dublin, Ireland and a host of others too numerous to mention.
Recent decades have been extremely exciting times for paleornithologists, and in this period there has been a true renaissance in paleornithological science, with astonishing fossil finds from across the globe indicating hitherto unimagined adaptive radiations of archaic birds in the Mesozoic, and with new Tertiary fossils revealing startling new aspects of neornithine phylogeny.
- Owen, R. (1863). On the Archaeopteryx of Von Meyer, with a description of the fossil remains of a long-tailed species from the lithographic stone of Solnhofen. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 153: 33–47. doi:10.1098/rstl.1863.0003