Posted by: doctorlouse | January 28, 2012

The Archaeopteryx Image Crisis

My absolute favorite dinosaur as a child was, without a doubt, the archaeopteryx.  Not only does it have the coolest sounding name, but it also is generally accepted as the oldest bird species.  Birds are the only clade of dinosaurs that survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction, so the archaeopteryx was a pretty significant animal, as well.  Since they are my favorite dinosaur type, I get pretty excited when a new article turns up about them.  So when I saw the article about archaeopteryx coloring posted on ScienceNews a few days ago, I couldn’t resist.  Usually the bird/dinosaur is drawn with beautiful, colorful feathers, such as the green ones in the photo above.  New evidence, however, suggests that they may not have been so flamboyant.  Scanning electron microscopes can be used to measure the dimensions of organelles called melanosomes, pigment-carrying structures present in the feathers of these fossilized animals.  Researchers compared the dimensions to 87 melanosomes of known color from present-day bird feathers to those of the fossils, and they identified the color of an archaeopteryx feather, which is actually black like a crow, not the usual bright green, red, or blue color that is shown in most illustrations.

This same procedure has been used to identify the color of other non-feathered dinosaurs as well.  The flamboyant image of the archaeopteryx, however, can’t be dismissed completely since only one feather has been examined using this method so far.  Sure, one feather might be black, but who knows what the rest of the animal looked like?  It very well could have looked like the picture above with a mix of black and blue feathers.  The image of my favorite dinosaur has not been irreversibly dulled yet, but the true picture will undoubtedly be revealed soon as this new technology is advanced.

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