The presence of melanosome organelles in the 150-million-year-old fossilized feathers of Anchiornis huxleyi, a winged dinosaur species, was confirmed by a team of researcher at Brown University.
Scientist have long claimed to be able to pick out the presence of pigment-producing organelles in ancient dino bones. But skeptics insist that faint microbodies are actually a type of bacteria.
In an attempt to settle the debate, Brown researchers subjected the newly unearthed dino fossil, sourced from China, to intensive spectroscopic analysis. Their aim was to detect the molecular signature of animal eumelanin pigment.
After the researchers found what they were looking for inside in the preserved organelles, they compared the chemical signature to those of modern animal eumelanin pigment — a match.
“This is animal melanin, not microbial melanin, and it is associated with these melanosome-like structures in the fossil feathers,” researcher Ryan Carney said in a press release.
Carney is the co-author of a new paper on the subject, published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.
“We have integrated structural and molecular evidence that demonstrates that melanosomes do persist in the fossil record,” Carney added. “This evidence of animal-specific melanin in fossil feathers is the final nail in the coffin that shows that these microbodies are indeed melanosomes and not microbes.”
Carney and his colleagues say the evidence proves prior studies suggesting the small bird-like dinosaur sported dark black feathers were accurate.
The findings may have implications for how images of a variety of ancient species are rendered by paleontological artists.