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.
“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.
In a studio Published Wednesday in Scientific Reports, Dr. Carney and a team of colleagues compared the feather to the fossil remains of other feathers found with archeopteryx fossils more recently, and say the debate is now settled: the feather belongs to archeopteryx.
Although the debate over whether the feather belonged to archeopteryx persisted, it became more concentrated in 2019 when other scientists argued in an article that the feather may belong to another winged dinosaur species. Many scientists have been critical of this hypothesis, and Dr. Carney and his team decided to counter it by studying the shape of the feather. They hoped to see if it matched the anatomy of the feathers that were still related to other fossilized Archeopteryx specimens.
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.