Scientists examining fossilized birds said to be 100 million years old have been able to interpret the color patterns of the feathers. Writing in Biology Letters, the researchers describe how the feathers displayed “striking” black-and-white bands.
For years, the banding had been of disputed origin.
Previous microscopic analysis of the bands had showed a granular texture composed of thousands of tiny flattened spheres. Originally interpreted as fossilized bacteria, they are now recognized as melanosomes, cells that cluster in the dark areas of modern birds. By understanding the location and arrangement of melanosomes on modern birds, paleontologists may be able to reconstruct the plumage colors of other fossilized birds, and the team hopes it may eventually extend the technique to deciphering fur colors or even eye colors.
For years, the banding had been of disputed origin. The University of Bristol’s Mike Benton, commenting on the work, explained:
“The banding looks so life-like that it can’t be geological in origin—it has to be biological. But then how do you square that with the well-known fact that the majority of organic molecules decay in thousands of years?” [Our emphasis]
We’ll simply echo Benton’s question—rhetorically! Since the possibility of organic molecules still being intact in these fossils is obviously being dismissed outright, we will have to hold our breath until we find if their only explanation pans out: “Somehow [the melanosomes] are retained and replaced during the preservation process and hence you preserve a very life like representation of the colour banding” [again our emphasis].
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