The feather looks like any feather you might find on the ground. But it’s not. It’s about 150 million years old, and it fluttered to the ground back when the dinosaurs roamed what is today called Bavaria. It’s entombed in limestone, and, when paleontologists unearthed it in 1861, it became the first fossil feather ever discovered.
Many paleontologists think the feather came from archaeopteryx lithographica, a creature that, with its feathered wings and sharp-toothed mouth, bears features of both dinosaurs and birds, making it a herald of the evolutionary transition between the two groups.
But that first-known fossil feather isn’t attached to an archaeopteryx skeleton, and so for more than a century, not all scientists have agreed on the identity of the feather’s owner.
“There’s been this debate, even when the feather was found: Does this isolated feather belong to the same animal as these skeletal specimens of archaeopteryx?” said Ryan Carney, a paleontologist and epidemiologist at the University of South Florida.
In a study published Sept. 30 in the journal Scientific Reports, Carney and a team of colleagues compared the feather with the fossil remains of other feathers found with archaeopteryx fossils more recently, and they claim that the debate is now settled: The feather belongs to archaeopteryx.
In 2019 scientists argued in a paper that the feather might have belonged to another winged dinosaur species. Many scientists have been critical of this hypothesis, and Carney and his team set out to counter it by studying the shape of the feather. They hoped to see whether it matched the anatomy of feathers that were still connected to other fossilized Archaeopteryx specimens.
They report that the feathers, for instance, have similar widths, lengths and curvatures.
Using a high-powered scanning electron microscope, the team also captured images of the feather with enough detail to reveal the presence of thousands of molecules called melanosomes — organelles responsible for the feather’s coloration — that preserve the feather’s original pigments. The pigments suggest that the feather was matte black in color.
Whether this paper settles the argument, Stephen Brusatte, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh, said studying the feather continues to offer useful insights.
“To me, ultimately, the important thing is that this feather belonged to a small-winged Jurassic animal that could fly pretty well, regardless of whether it was shed from the wing of archaeopteryx or another bird,” he said.
— LUCAS JOEL
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