Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Pigment or bacteria? Researchers re-examine the idea of 'color' in fossil feathers

Date:
March 5, 2014
Source:
North Carolina State University
Summary:
Paleontologists studying fossilized feathers propose that the shapes of certain microscopic structures inside the feathers can tell us the color of ancient birds. But new research shows that it is not yet possible to tell if these structures are what they seem.

Paleontologists studying fossilized feathers have proposed that the shapes of certain microscopic structures inside the feathers can tell us the color of ancient birds. But new research from North Carolina State University demonstrates that it is not yet possible to tell if these structures -- thought to be melanosomes -- are what they seem, or if they are merely the remnants of ancient bacteria.

Related Articles


Melanosomes are small, pigment-filled sacs located inside the cells of feathers and other pigmented tissues of vertebrates. They contain melanin, which can give feathers colors ranging from brownish-red to gray to solid black. Melanosomes are either oblong or round in shape, and the identification of these small bodies in preserved feathers has led to speculation about the physiology, habitats, coloration and lifestyles of the extinct animals, including dinosaurs, that once possessed them.

But melanosomes are not the only round and oblong microscopic structures that might show up in fossilized feathers. In fact, the microbes that drove the decomposition of the animal prior to fossilization share the same size and shape as melanosomes, and they would also be present in feathers during decay.

Alison Moyer, a Ph.D. candidate in paleontology at NC State, wanted to find out whether these structures could be definitively identified as either melanosome or microbe. Using black and brown chicken feathers -- chickens are one of the closest living relatives to both dinosaurs and ancient birds -- Moyer grew bacteria over them to replicate what we see in the fossil record. She used three different types of microscopy to examine the patterns of biofilm growth, and then compared those structures to melanosomes inside of chicken feathers that she had sliced open. Finally, she compared both microbes and actual melanosomes to structures in a fossilized feather from Gansus yumenensis, an avian dinosaur that lived about 120 million years ago, and to published images of fossil "melanosomes" by others. Her findings led to more questions.

"These structures could be original to the bird, or they could be a biofilm which has grown over and degraded the feather -- if the latter, they would also produce round or elongated structures that are not melanosomes," Moyer says. "Melanosomes are embedded in keratin, which is a very tough protein, so they're hard to see unless there's been some degradation. But the bacteria are doing the degrading, and so that may be what we're seeing, rather than the melanosome itself. It's impossible to say with certainty what these structures are without more data, including fine scale chemical data."

The research appears online in Scientific Reports. Possible next steps for Moyer include testing for the presence of keratin or bacteria within the fossils, by looking for their molecular signals.

"The technology that we have available to us as paleontologists now is amazing, and will make it much easier to test all of the hypotheses we develop about these fossils," Moyer says. "In the meantime, perhaps we can establish some basic criteria for identifying these structures as melanosomes, such as whether they're found within the feather's interior, or externally."

The research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and the David and Lucille Packard foundation. The fossil feather was provided by the Gansu Geological Museum in Lanzhou, Gansu, China.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by North Carolina State University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Alison E. Moyer, Wenxia Zheng, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Matthew C. Lamanna, Da-qing Li, Kenneth J. Lacovara, Mary H. Schweitzer. Melanosomes or Microbes: Testing an Alternative Hypothesis for the Origin of Microbodies in Fossil Feathers. Scientific Reports, 2014; 4 DOI: 10.1038/srep04233

Cite This Page:

North Carolina State University. "Pigment or bacteria? Researchers re-examine the idea of 'color' in fossil feathers." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 March 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140305105943.htm>.
North Carolina State University. (2014, March 5). Pigment or bacteria? Researchers re-examine the idea of 'color' in fossil feathers. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 20, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140305105943.htm
North Carolina State University. "Pigment or bacteria? Researchers re-examine the idea of 'color' in fossil feathers." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/03/140305105943.htm (accessed December 20, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Fossils & Ruins News

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Researchers Bring Player Pianos Back to Life

Researchers Bring Player Pianos Back to Life

AP (Dec. 17, 2014) Stanford University wants to unlock the secrets of the player piano. Researchers are restoring and studying self-playing pianos and the music rolls that recorded major composers performing their own work. (Dec. 17) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Domestication Might've Been Bad For Horses

Domestication Might've Been Bad For Horses

Newsy (Dec. 16, 2014) A group of scientists looked at the genetics behind the domestication of the horse and showed how human manipulation changed horses' DNA. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Mozart, Beethoven, Shubert and Bizet Manuscripts to Go on Sale

Mozart, Beethoven, Shubert and Bizet Manuscripts to Go on Sale

AFP (Dec. 16, 2014) A collection of rare manuscripts by composers Mozart, Beethoven, Shubert and Bizet are due to go on sale at auction on December 17. Duration: 00:57 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Old Ship Records to Shed Light on Arctic Ice Loss

Old Ship Records to Shed Light on Arctic Ice Loss

Reuters - Innovations Video Online (Dec. 15, 2014) Researchers are looking to the past to gain a clearer picture of what the future holds for ice in the Arctic. A project to analyse and digitize ship logs dating back to the 1850's aims to lengthen the timeline of recorded ice data. Ben Gruber reports. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins