Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Palaeo Noir: Archaeopteryx

New evidence on the colour and nature of the isolated Archaeopteryx feather. 2012. R.M. Carney, et al. Nature Communications 3.

Lead author's tattoo of his findings image
Abstract: Archaeopteryx has been regarded as an icon of evolution ever since its discovery from the Late Jurassic limestone deposits of Solnhofen, Germany in 1861. Here we report the first evidence of colour from Archaeopteryx based on fossilized colour-imparting melanosomes discovered in this isolated feather specimen.

Using a phylogenetically diverse database of extant bird feathers, statistical analysis of melanosome morphology predicts that the original colour of this Archaeopteryx feather was black, with 95% probability. Furthermore, reexamination of the feather's morphology leads us to interpret it as an upper major primary covert, contrary to previous interpretations.

Additional findings reveal that the specimen is preserved as an organosulphur residue, and that barbule microstructure identical to that of modern bird feathers had evolved as early as the Jurassic. As in extant birds, the extensive melanization would have provided structural advantages to the Archaeopteryx wing feather during this early evolutionary stage of dinosaur flight.