R. M. Carney et al., Nature (24 January 2012); (feather) Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

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ScienceShot: Jurassic Crow?

Analyses of a single fossil feather from Archaeopteryx, a creature long considered to be the world's oldest known bird, suggest that the crow-sized animal may have been crow-colored as well. This isolated feather (left), shed about 150 million years ago but unearthed from fine-grained limestone in Bavaria in 1861, is the only remnant of the species preserved as a dark trace of organic material rather than as an impression or a cast of a body part. The size and shape of pigment-bearing structures preserved throughout the sulfur-rich fossil (arrows, right), when compared with the variety of such structures in the plumage of modern-day birds, indicate the ancient feather was almost certainly black, researchers report online today in Nature Communications. While previous studies have suggested that the object was either a primary or secondary feather—one along the trailing edge of the wing that bore aerodynamic loads and therefore helped support the creature during flight—the new study hints that the short, relatively wide plume was a so-called covert feather that helped ensure smooth airflow across the top of the wing. Only similar analyses of fossil feathers yet to be discovered can reveal whether Archaeopteryx was black all over, the researchers say.

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