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A diverse assemblage of Late Cretaceous dinosaur and bird feathers from Canadian amber.

Science (New York, N.Y.)

Animals, Biological Evolution, Birds, anatomy & histology, Canada, Dinosaurs, Pigmentation, Feathers, Fossils, Amber

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      Abstract

      The fossil record of early feathers has relied on carbonized compressions that lack fine structural detail. Specimens in amber are preserved in greater detail, but they are rare. Late Cretaceous coal-rich strata from western Canada provide the richest and most diverse Mesozoic feather assemblage yet reported from amber. The fossils include primitive structures closely matching the protofeathers of nonavian dinosaurs, offering new insights into their structure and function. Additional derived morphologies confirm that plumage specialized for flight and underwater diving had evolved in Late Cretaceous birds. Because amber preserves feather structure and pigmentation in unmatched detail, these fossils provide novel insights regarding feather evolution.

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      Plumage color patterns of an extinct dinosaur.

      For as long as dinosaurs have been known to exist, there has been speculation about their appearance. Fossil feathers can preserve the morphology of color-imparting melanosomes, which allow color patterns in feathered dinosaurs to be reconstructed. Here, we have mapped feather color patterns in a Late Jurassic basal paravian theropod dinosaur. Quantitative comparisons with melanosome shape and density in extant feathers indicate that the body was gray and dark and the face had rufous speckles. The crown was rufous, and the long limb feathers were white with distal black spangles. The evolution of melanin-based within-feather pigmentation patterns may coincide with that of elongate pennaceous feathers in the common ancestor of Maniraptora, before active powered flight. Feathers may thus have played a role in sexual selection or other communication.
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        Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Cretaceous dinosaurs and birds.

        Spectacular fossils from the Early Cretaceous Jehol Group of northeastern China have greatly expanded our knowledge of the diversity and palaeobiology of dinosaurs and early birds, and contributed to our understanding of the origin of birds, of flight, and of feathers. Pennaceous (vaned) feathers and integumentary filaments are preserved in birds and non-avian theropod dinosaurs, but little is known of their microstructure. Here we report that melanosomes (colour-bearing organelles) are not only preserved in the pennaceous feathers of early birds, but also in an identical manner in integumentary filaments of non-avian dinosaurs, thus refuting recent claims that the filaments are partially decayed dermal collagen fibres. Examples of both eumelanosomes and phaeomelanosomes have been identified, and they are often preserved in life position within the structure of partially degraded feathers and filaments. Furthermore, the data here provide empirical evidence for reconstructing the colours and colour patterning of these extinct birds and theropod dinosaurs: for example, the dark-coloured stripes on the tail of the theropod dinosaur Sinosauropteryx can reasonably be inferred to have exhibited chestnut to reddish-brown tones.
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          The colour of fossil feathers.

          Feathers are complex integumentary appendages of birds and some other theropod dinosaurs. They are frequently coloured and function in camouflage and display. Previous investigations have concluded that fossil feathers are preserved as carbonized traces composed of feather-degrading bacteria. Here, an investigation of a colour-banded feather from the Lower Cretaceous Crato Formation of Brazil revealed that the dark bands are preserved as elongate, oblate carbonaceous bodies 1-2 microm long, whereas the light bands retain only relief traces on the rock matrix. Energy dispersive X-ray analysis showed that the dark bands preserve a substantial amount of carbon, whereas the light bands show no carbon residue. Comparison of these oblate fossil bodies with the structure of black feathers from a living bird indicates that they are the eumelanin-containing melanosomes. We conclude that most fossil feathers are preserved as melanosomes, and that the distribution of these structures in fossil feathers can preserve the colour pattern in the original feather. The discovery of preserved melanosomes opens up the possibility of interpreting the colour of extinct birds and other dinosaurs.
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            Author and article information

            Journal
            21921196
            10.1126/science.1203344

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