Birdwatch News Archive
Posted on: 23 Sep 2016
An international team of scientists led by the University of Manchester is uncovering the true colours of extinct birds and dinosaurs.
The team is using state-of-the-art x-ray methods to analyse the chemistry of bird feathers in order to get a clearer idea of what they looked like in life. The pioneering research at The University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Ancient Life has studied the feathers of modern birds in order to find long-lived chemical markers for different pigments present in living birds' feathers, so that traces may be reconstructed in good quality fossil specimens.
Melanin is the dominant pigment in mammals and birds that gives them either a black or dark brown colour such as in Raven, or a reddish or yellow hue, as in Fox. This black pigment is more specifically called eumelanin, while the reddish type is pheomelanin.
In collaboration with the UK’s Diamond Light Source x-ray laboratories and Stanford University in the USA, the scientists analysed feathers shed by birds housed in animal sanctuaries. Their research has been able to show that the trace metal zinc is a reliable and sensitive indicator for the presence of pheomelanin within the distinct feathers of birds of prey, when it is bonded to sulphur compounds in a specific way.
This discovery means that scientists are getting closer to portraying true colours based upon chemical evidence, building on work by palaeontologists at China's Institute for Vertebrate Paleontology, who first published evidence that they had identified melanosomes (melanin-bearing cells) in fossil bird feathers in 2010.