Dinosaur bird had black feathers

2012-01-25 09:40

Paris - Archaeopteryx, a winged dinosaur long believed to be the world's first bird, had black feathers, according to a scientific feat reported on Tuesday.

The colour of skin and feathers is one of the big unknowns about dinosaurs, and it is left to the imagination of artists, rather than scientists, to depict how these enigmatic creatures looked.

Researchers in the US and Europe pored over a remarkably preserved wing feather in an Archaeopteryx fossil unearthed in a German limestone quarry in 1861.

The shape of the feather indicated that it was a "covert", the term for a feather that covers the primary and secondary wing plumage which birds use in flight.

Their next goal was to hunt for fossilised melanosomes, or pigment-producing parts of a cell.


Two attempts to image the tiny, sausage-shaped components - measuring just a millionth of a metre long and 250 billionths of a metre wide - failed.

The breakthrough came with a scanning electron microscope at the Carl Zeiss laboratory in Germany, which revealed hundreds of the structures encased in patches in the feather.

"The third time was the charm, and we finally found the keys to unlocking the feather's original colour, hidden in the rock for the past 150 million years," said Ryan Carney, an evolutionary biologist at Brown University, in the US state of Rhode Island.

Statistically matched against the melanosomes of 87 species of living birds, Archaeopteryx's plumed treasure was estimated to be black, with a 95% certainty, the scientists said.

Black could have been useful as camouflage, for display or to regulate the body temperature.

The alignment of the melanosomes, and tiny overlapping appendages called barbules, are evidence that the wing feather was rigid and durable, rather like the feathers of modern birds.

"If Archaeopteryx was flapping or gliding, the presence of melanosomes would have given the feathers additional structural support," Carney said.

"This would have been advantageous during this early evolutionary stage of dinosaur flight."

The paper is published by the journal Nature Communications.

Archaeopteryx has a hallowed place in palaeontology.

A fossil of the creature, discovered 150 years ago, inspired the belief that this was the forerunner of all birds.

The raven-sized creature had feathered wings and a wishbone as well as the reptilian features of teeth, clawed fingers and a bony tail.

The cherished theory was knocked back last July when Chinese fossil-hunter Xing Xu determined that Archaeopteryx was only one of numerous proto-birds, or feathery dinosaurs, which lived around 150 million years ago.

  • CathrynReece - 2012-01-25 10:03

    Awesome! Amazing to think dinosaurs become birds!

      frans.visserdsb - 2012-01-25 13:38

      Look at an ostrich - thye look a lot like i would imagine dinosaurs would have looked like...

      Herman - 2012-01-25 17:05

      This is old news, Mary Schweitzer, paleontologist at North Carolina State University has found blood vessels, collagen and blood cells of a reportedly 68million year old T-rex. The tissue look remarkably similar to that of an ostrich. How tissue can survive that long, is even a greater miracle than walking on the water.

  • Stephen - 2012-01-25 10:09

    they we all gone in one day, 10km asteroid, perhaps something we should be thinking about.

      Victor - 2012-01-25 11:39

      Not sure if it was just one day - the way I understood it is anything close to the main impact crater would have been incinerated. Secondary impacts would have the same effect (pieces of the main asteroid that broke off). The resulting dust cloud changed the climate drastically and killed the rest.

      Kyle - 2012-01-25 11:44

      @Victor - in would have taken months, but in terms of earths time line, it could be seen as virtually instantaneous.... rule for millions of years and gone in a few months...

      Victor - 2012-01-25 11:45

      Kyle I see what you mean. When you think of how short a period of time humans have inhabited this planet vs the dinosaurs it makes you see just how insignificant we are!

  • AquaticApe - 2012-01-25 10:10

    Birds ARE dinosaurs! Those animals flying around your garden are dinosaurs. Every time you eat a chicken or ostrich you're noshing on a dinosaur!

  • nicky.vanderwalt1 - 2012-01-25 10:23

    What a waste of energy and resources !!!

      Guy - 2012-01-25 11:16

      what should they rather be doing with their very specific education and funding?

      Victor - 2012-01-25 11:37

      Why is this a waste? If you make a statement like that, at least back it up with some reasons

      vessela.hobson - 2012-01-25 12:10

      curiosity and scientific progress is the only thing separating homo sapiens from other animals, it is our greatest achievement and I am happy and proud to be living in the 21st century where we know so much about our universe. Thank you science!

      vessela.hobson - 2012-01-25 12:18

      waste of money = 10% of people's salaries given to building Ray McCauley's mansions

      Godfrey - 2012-01-25 13:59

      @vessela.hobson You mention money and the self appointed representatives of a god on Earth. What I find interesting is that the believers in the god who is supposed to have created everything, do not find it strange that this all powerful god has proved totally incapable of creating his own money. So it is left to the mammon loving popes, pastors, priests and reverends to collect money for him.

  • Johann - 2012-01-25 12:51

    Sir Richard Owen coined the word dinosaur, meaning "fearfully great lizard," in 1842. In Greek, deinos means "fearfully great" and sauros means "lizard." Prior to that date dinosaurs was commonly know as dragons.

  • faerrab - 2012-01-25 13:06

    Wow ! Aye-yor Bra! thats amazing Cuzzie !!! They can even check what happened a billion years ago - Dat black feathered Dinee could be my family mos.......

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