Charles Darwin acknowledged the importance of colour in the natural selection of bird plumage. Colour can indicate age, sex, and diet, as well as play roles in camouflage, mating and establishing territories. Feather and integument colour depend on both chemical and structural characteristics and so melanosome structure and trace metal biomarkers can be used to infer colour and pigment patterns in a range of extant and fossil organisms. In this study, three key specimens of Archaeopteryx were subjected to non-destructive chemical analysis in order to investigate the potential preservation of original pigmentation in early fossil feathers. Synchrotron Rapid Scanning X-ray Fluorescence (SRS-XRF) maps are combined with sulphur X-ray Absorption Near Edge Structure (XANES) spectroscopy to provide the first map of organic sulphur distribution within whole fossils, and demonstrate that organically derived endogenous compounds are present. The distribution of trace-metals and organic sulphur in Archaeopteryx strongly suggests that remnants of endogenous eumelanin pigment have been preserved in the feathers of this iconic fossil. These distributions are used here to predict the complete feather pigment pattern and show that the distal tips and outer vanes of feathers were more heavily pigmented than inner vanes, contrary to recent studies. This pigment adaptation might have impacted upon the structural and mechanical properties of early feathers, steering plumage evolution in Archaeopteryx and other feathered theropod dinosaurs.
This article is Open Access
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