Did You Know…

...that Archaeopteryx Wore a Little Black Dress?

With the aid of an extremely powerful scanning electron microscope from ZEISS, cells that produced black pigments were found in a feather of this ancient bird. These so-called melanosomes made the tips of the flight feathers stiff and resilient, which probably made them fit for flying. Now, it is still a matter of debate whether this winged dinosaur was actually able to launch itself aloft with its black feathers. Earlier investigations showed that the quills of this ancient creature were still too weak for effective flight.

An international research team from Brown University in Providence, USA, took the only feather in the world ever found from this raven-sized dinosaur and examined it using a new method of analysis. Not only did the scientists discover parts of cells that produced pigments; they also found out that the structure of the Archaeopteryx feather is identical to that of the feathers of modern birds. This means that flight feathers had already developed in the Jurassic age, in other words 150 million years ago.

“If Archaeopteryx was truly able to flutter and glide, the melanosomes would have definitely given its feathers greater structural rigidity,” says Ryan Carney, evolutionary biologist at Brown University and the main author of the study. “That would have been an advantage at this early evolutionary stage of dinosaur flight.”

The Archaeopteryx feather and all skeletons were discovered in the Solnhofen Plattenkalk in 1861, only two years after Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” was published. Paleontologists have naturally been fascinated by the find ever since, as the Archaeopteryx marked the beginning of the evolution of birds. It is considered to be the link between reptiles (with teeth, claws, and a bony tail) and birds (with feathered wings and a bird-like hip). Even though the shape of this hybrid had been thoroughly researched, the structure and color of the feathers still remained a puzzle for many years. In order to determine the exact color of the pigment cells, these researchers compared the shapes they discovered with 87 shapes from modern bird species: 95 percent of all black pigment-producing cells had the same shape as those of the ancient bird. That proves at least that the Archaeopteryx had black plumage – regardless of whether it moved on the ground or through the air.

4 April 2012