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This image shows a fossil specimen of Archaeopteryx, one of the first birds. Archaeopteryx (“ancient wing”) thrived 145-150 million years ago during the time of the dinosaurs. In fact, all living birds are dinosaur descendants! This particular Archaeopteryx specimen is on display in a Berlin museum.

Several Archaeopteryx fossil specimens (including the specimen pictured above) famously show brilliant impressions of the proto-bird’s elaborate feathers. However, new research has shown that at least one specimen contains more than just impressions of the feathers. There are small chemical traces of the feathers themselves. The specimen in question was discovered in Germany in 2005, and later donated to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis, Wyoming. Thus, it is often called the “Thermopolis” specimen.

Scientists borrowed the Thermopolis specimen and bombarded it with x-rays at the Stanford Linear Accelerator in California. The x-ray data provided new data on the fossil’s chemical composition, and revealed those unexpected chemical traces of the specimen’s feathers and bone. The findings, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, has revealed many more bird-like characteristics of Archaeopteryx. Scientists announced that Archaeopteryx and modern birds both have similar bone chemistry, and likely similar nutritional needs. Owners of pet birds, for example, might know that copper and zinc are essential minerals in pet bird diets. Archaeopteryx may have had similar nutritional needs.

These new findings are as amazing as they are tragic. Traditionally, fossils weren’t thought to contain chemical traces of the original organism. Thus, curators preparing fossil specimens for display typically didn’t treat fossils to preserve these chemical signatures. Thus, for many other Archaeopteryx specimens that have been studied and put on display, handlers and curators have likely inadvertently swept away these chemical traces. It was only by luck that a few portions of the Thermopolis specimen of Archaeopteryx had not been handled too roughly.

This new look at Archaeopteryx fossils is breathing new live into paleontology — but from a chemical perspective. Expect chemical analyses of other fossil specimens in the future. Some even speculate that the right fossil sample may even preserve another mystery about this early bird: the color of its feathers. Stay tuned.

Image provided courtesy of H. Raab.

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Late last year, I read an article in Nature that brought together two of my favorite subjects: sex determination and fossils. I study sex determination in a group of fish for my thesis research. But, before I was a graduate student, I was one of those nerdy “momma’s boy” types who loved reading about fossils. Paleontology was such an interesting subject to me that, thanks to the advice of a very wise biology professor, I earned a minor in geology in college. But enough about me.
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