Hidden Gem

Nopcsa, F. (1907) Ideas on the Origin of Flight. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 77: 223-236.

'Pro-avis'This ‘hidden gem’ from 1907 is a wonderful specimen of natural history and early palaeontology which discusses the origin of flight in pterosaurs, mammals, dinosaurs and birds. The article, published in the Journal of Zoology’s predecessor Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, is written by Dr Baron Francis, or Franz, Nopcsa, a Hungarian palaeontologist who supported the idea that birds evolved from dinosaurs, as first proposed by Thomas Henry Huxley. Dr Nopcsa begins his article by emphasising the essential difference between patagium and feather as the two structures used for flight in vertebrates, pointing out that “a patagium is a soft flexible membrane and in consequence requires, to be effective, numerous firm radial supports originating from the body that has to be carried, whereas for a series of semirigid but elastic quills one line of attachment is sufficient.” He observes how in pterosaurs and bats, both the fore and hind limbs as well as the tail have evolved to support the patagium, and concludes that “since the union of fore and hind limbs is directly opposed to bipedal cursorial locomotion, we can safely state that all patagium-flying animals originated from quadrupedal, leaping, arboreal forms”, whereas, inferring from the fossils of the oldest known bird Archaeopteryx, Dr Nopcsa proposes that “birds originated from bipedal long-tailed cursorial reptiles which during running oared along in the air by flapping their free anterior extremities.” The author then presents in a sketch his vision of a “Pro-avis”, a hypothetical, dinosaur-like bipedal reptile with horny scales on the fore limbs that would aid this creature to “take longs strides or leaps”, and which would “ultimately develop to actual feathers”. We hope you enjoy the free paper in the Hidden Gems section of the journal website.

By Elina Rantanen

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