Archaeopteryx - A bird so old, it only came in black and white

Archaeopteryx, the famous dino-bird, was differently-colored than previously believed. About the size of a raven, they were once thought to have been entirely black. New analysis now shows the feathers of Archaeopteryx were mostly off-white, with black edges and tips.

This new insight was developed from x-rays analysis of fossils done at the University of Manchester in England. The researchers were able to detect tiny traces of the pigment left over from the dino-bird's feathers.

"This is a big leap forward in our understanding of the evolution of plumage and also the preservation of feathers," Phil Manning, a palaeontologist at the University of Manchester, said.

Minerals usually completely replace whatever organic material would remain from the fossilized animal. However, small structures called melanosomes that act like miniature paint buckets were discovered in fossils in 2008. These tiny cigar-shaped structures exist within cells, and are responsible for the production of pigmentation.

"The fact that these compounds have been preserved in-place for 150 million years is extraordinary. Scans of a second fossilized Archaeopteryx, known as the Berlin counterpart, also show that the trace-metal inventory supported the same plumage pigmentation pattern," Manning said.

Only 11 specimens of Archaeopteryx have ever been found. The first fossil discovered of the species consisted of the remains of just a single feather. Archaeopteryx represents a transitional species between dinosaurs and birds, who lived in what is now southern Germany.

Chemical analysis conducted in 2012 of small sections of that single fossilized feather indicated that one feather was black. Since such coloration helps protect the feathers of some modern birds, the earlier hypothesis held that Archaeopteryx was uniformly black.

This time, the entire fossil was examined with the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL). Researchers found organic sulfur compounds of a type associated with feathers, as well as traces of ingredients for pigment.

Unlike modern birds, Archaeopteryx had teeth and a bony tail, like dinosaurs. They lived around 150 million years ago, and their body structure was similar to a modern European magpie.

The research was conducted in cooperation with the United States Department of Energy (DOE). Analysis of the findings was published in the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry June 13. The journal is a publication of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

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