Scientists argue origins of a famous feather

It’s not yet a war of words, but an interesting debate is brewing over the origins of the first fossil feather ever found.

Unearthed in the Solnhofen area of southern Germany in 1861, the isolated feather has been taken to come from Archaeopteryx, the famous bird-like dinosaur.

There has always been a little controversy about this, however, and early last year researchers led by the University of Hong Kong suggested in the journal Scientific Reports that the theory is wrong.

Their paper talks of challenging the identity of the feather. An accompanying media release spoke of “dethroning an icon”.

Not so fast, says an international team led by the University of Southern Florida, US. In a paper in the latest edition of the same journal, they suggest that their work provides substantial evidence that the feather does indeed belong to Archaeopteryx.

“This debunks a recent theory that the fossil originated from a different species,” they write in their media release.

The Hong Kong team used an imaging technique called Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence and this, they say, both revealed a previously unseen mystery quill and indicated that the feather came from an unknown but different feathered dinosaur.

201001 fossil
Credit: Museum fur Naturkunde

The new study, which involved use of a specialised type of electron microscope, returns serve, contending, up front, that the fossil matches a type of wing feather called a primary covert, which overlays the primary feathers and helps propel birds through the air.

From this, analysis of nine attributes of the feather, data from modern birds, and 13 known skeletal fossils of Archaeopteryx, three of which contain well-preserved primary coverts, showed, the researchers say, that the top surface of an Archaeopteryx wing has primary coverts that are identical to the isolated feather in size and shape.

The feather was also from the same fossil site as four skeletons of Archaeopteryx, confirming their findings.

The study then went further. The researchers determined that the feather came from the left wing, they say, and detected melanosomes, which are microscopic pigment structures.

After refining their colour reconstruction, they found that the feather was entirely matte black, not black and white “as another study has claimed”.

“There’s been debate for the past 159 years as to whether or not this feather belongs to the same species as the Archaeopteryx skeletons, as well as where on the body it came from and its original colour,” says lead author Ryan Carney.

“Through scientific detective work that combined new techniques with old fossils and literature, we were able to finally solve these centuries-old mysteries.”

We await a possible next chapter.

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