Updated: Monday, 24th September 2018 @ 5:48am

'Dino-bird' breakthrough as University of Manchester scientists inject a little colour into prehistoric flyer

'Dino-bird' breakthrough as University of Manchester scientists inject a little colour into prehistoric flyer

By Danielle Wainwright

Secrets of a 150-million-year-old ‘dino-bird’ were published by the University of Manchester today – which revealed the creature was brightly coloured and not black like previously thought.

Ground-breaking experiments on Archaeopteryx feathers, an early dinosaur-bird genus, has revealed that the species had a colourful plumage of light colours and dark tips.

The study, published today in the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry, discovered chemical traces locked in the 150-million-year-old bird’s bones and feathers. This allowed the team to recreate the plumage pattern of an extinct bird for the very first time.

Remarkable X-ray images by Manchester scientists and colleagues from the US department of Energy were made by a fast scanning beam which found trace-metals associated with pigment and organic sulphur compounds that could only have come from the animal’s original feathers.

Scientists also discovered melanosomes, microscopic ‘biological paint pot’ structures in which pigment was once made.

Dr Phil Manning, lead author of the study at The University of Manchester, said: “This is a big leap forward in our understanding of the evolution of plumage and also the preservation of feathers.

“The fact that these compounds have been preserved in-place for 150 million years is extraordinary.

“Together, these chemical traces show that the feather was light in colour with areas of darker pigment along one edge and on the tip.”

Only 11 Archaeopteryx fossils have ever been found and until a few years ago, researchers thought minerals would have replaced all the bones and tissues of the original animal during fossilisation, leaving no chemical traces behind.

However, a team led by researchers at Brown University announced last year that an analysis of melanosomes in the single Archaeopteryx feather indicated it was black.

With the new research, scientists have proved that the dino-bird was in fact a colourful creature and are now one step closer to finding out more about the majestic specimen.

The research will help scientists discover more about the creatures’ way of life such as eating habits, reproduction, health and evolution.

Co-author Dr Roy Wogelius, also based in Manchester’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, said: “This work refines our understanding of pigment patterning in perhaps the most important known fossil. Our technique shows that complex patterns were present even at the very earliest steps in the evolution of birds.”

Dr Manning added: “It is remarkable that x-rays brighter than a million suns can shed new light on our understanding of the processes that have locked elements in place for such vast periods of time.

“Ultimately, this research might help inform scientists on the mechanisms acting during long-term burial, from animal remains to hazardous waste.

“The fossil record has potential to provide the experimental hindsight required in such studies.”

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