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The first fossil feather ever found belonged to this dinosaur

The feather looks like any feather you might find on the ground. But it isn’t. It is about 150 million years old and fluttered to the ground when dinosaurs roamed what is now called Bavaria. It is buried in limestone and, when paleontologists unearthed it in 1861, it became the first fossil feather ever discovered.

Many paleontologists think that the feather comes from archeopteryx lithographica, a creature that, with its feathered wings and sharp-toothed mouth, bears the characteristics of both dinosaurs and birds, making it a herald of the evolutionary transition between the two groups.

But that first known fossil feather is not attached to an archeopteryx skeleton, so for more than a century not all scientists have agreed on the identity of the feather’s owner.

“There was this debate, even when the feather was found: Does this isolated feather belong to the same animal as these skeletal archeopteryx specimens?” said Ryan Carney, a paleontologist and entomologist at the University of South Florida who has a feather tattoo on his arm.

They report that feathers, for example, have similar widths, lengths and curvatures. After superimposing an outline of the 1861 feather on an archeopteryx fossil wing, the team also found that the feather fits the wing perfectly. They also point out that the feather comes from the same fossil site as four archeopteryxes later unearthed near Solnhofen, Germany.

Using a high-powered scanning electron microscope, the team also captured images of the feather in sufficient detail to reveal the presence of thousands of molecules called melanosomes – organelles responsible for coloring the feather – that preserve the feather’s original pigments. The pigments suggest that the feather was dull black. What color the rest of archeopteryx was remains an open question.

Peter Wellnhofer, a paleontologist from the Munich Paleontological Museum who wrote a book on archeopteryx and was not involved in the new research said he was impressed with the study.

“They did not rule out different interpretations, but they presented their own point of view, grounded with new and convincing arguments,” he said.

Michael Pittman, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Hong Kong and co-author of the 2019 study, still thinks the feather doesn’t fit, like a puzzle piece in the wrong box. Although the feather may be somewhere on archeopteryx, that doesn’t mean the feather didn’t come from another dinosaur, he said. “We can’t rule out that another bird or other species didn’t drop the feather.”

If this article solves the matter, Stephen Brusatte, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, said the study of the feather continues to offer useful insights.

“For me, ultimately, the important thing is that this feather belonged to a small-winged Jurassic animal that could fly quite well, regardless of whether it had been freed from the Archopteryx wing or from another bird,” he said. said. No doubt the warm, sunny lagoons of Jurassic Germany were full of flying dinosaurs. “

Whatever doubts anyone may still have, Dr. Carney is so sure of his conclusion that he got a new tattoo right under his feather tattoo. It reads “Veder von Archeopteryx lithographica”, which in German means “Feather of Archeopteryx lithographica”, and is the text written on the rock plate that bears the feather.

“Case closed on this matter,” said Dr. Carney.

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