Scientists have found a way to uncover feathered dinosaurs' true colors, and one of the first creatures to come under inspection is none other than Archaeopteryx — an iconic but mysterious theropod believed by many to be the "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds.
Now, by examining a single, exceptionally well-preserved feather, one group of paleontologists believes it has the evidence it needs to weigh in on the color of Archaeopteryx's prehistoric plumage. This bird, say the researchers, wore black.
There are only eleven fossilized Archaeopteryx on Earth. The most recently discovered specimen was unveiled last October, but the very first was recovered over 150 years ago from a slab of limestone in Bavaria, Germany. Also recovered with the first Bavarian specimen was a single fossil feather, which, according to Science Magazine, is the only remnant of the 150-million-year old species to be preserved in the form of organic matter, as opposed to an impression or a cast.
It was inside this lone feather that researchers from Brown University found evidence of Archaeopteryx's true colors; that evidence came in the form of microscopic, pigment-bearing structures called melanosomes, which remain ubiquitous in the animal kingdom even to this day.
By comparing the patterns of melanosomes contained within the Archaeopteryx feather (seen here) with the those found in the plumage of 87 similar, modern bird species, the researchers were able to determine that the feather was almost certainly black. What's more, the researchers say Archaeopteryx's melanosomes would have provided its wings a structural advantage, as well.
"If Archaeopteryx was flapping or gliding, the presence of melanosomes would have given the feathers additional structural support," said Ryan Carney, an evolutionary biologist at Brown and the paper's lead author. "This would have been advantageous during this early evolutionary stage of dinosaur flight."
We know, of course, from modern day examples that birds are often more than one color. So was Archaeopteryx jet black like a crow, or perhaps black and white like a magpie? Only time, and heretofore undiscovered fossil feathers, say the researchers, can reveal the truth.
The researchers' findings are published in the latest issue of Nature Communications
Top image by John Sibbick via; image of feather/melanosomes via Museum für Naturkunde Berlin/Ryan Carney; video by Mike Cohea and Richard Lewis, Brown University