Experimental maturation of feathers: implications for reconstructions of fossil feather colour

Maria E. McNamara, Derek E. G. Briggs, Patrick J. Orr, Daniel J. Field, Zhengrong Wang

Abstract

Fossil feathers often preserve evidence of melanosomes—micrometre-scale melanin-bearing organelles that have been used to infer original colours and patterns of the plumage of dinosaurs. Such reconstructions acknowledge that evidence from other colour-producing mechanisms is presently elusive and assume that melanosome geometry is not altered during fossilization. Here, we provide the first test of this assumption, using high pressure–high temperature autoclave experiments on modern feathers to simulate the effects of burial on feather colour. Our experiments show that melanosomes are retained despite loss of visual evidence of colour and complete degradation of other colour-producing structures (e.g. quasi-ordered arrays in barbs and the keratin cortex in barbules). Significantly, however, melanosome geometry and spatial distribution are altered by the effects of pressure and temperature. These results demonstrate that reconstructions of original plumage coloration in fossils where preserved features of melanosomes are affected by diagenesis should be treated with caution. Reconstructions of fossil feather colour require assessment of the extent of preservation of various colour-producing mechanisms, and, critically, the extent of alteration of melanosome geometry.

  • Received February 23, 2013.
  • Accepted March 5, 2013.
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