Researchers have located chemical remains of the oldest known bird, Archaeopteryx, in a landmark development for paleontology while studying fossils recovered 150 years ago, a new study reveals.
The discovery about the half-bird, half-dinosaur detailed in the May 10-15 journal Proceedings of National Academy of Science shows "portions of the feathers are not merely impressions of long-decomposed organic material as was previously believed".
"Instead, they include fossilised fragments of actual feathers containing phosphorous and sulfur, elements that compose modern bird feathers," wrote researchers, including lead author geochemist Dr Roy Wogelius from the University of Manchester, which worked with the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in the United States.
"We talk about the physical link between birds and dinosaurs, and now we have found a chemical link between them," said Dr Wogelius.
"In the fields of paleontology and geology, people have studied bones for decades. But this whole idea of the preservation of trace metals and the chemical remains of soft tissue is quite exciting."
British and US researchers found that trace amounts of copper and zinc were also found in the Dinobird's bones: like modern birds, the Archaeopteryx may have needed them to flourish.
"Archaeopteryx is to paleontology what Tutankhamen is to archaeology. It's simply one of the icons of our field," said University of Manchester palaeontologist Dr Phil Manning.
"You would think after 150 years of study, we'd know everything we need to know about this animal. But guess what - we were wrong."
Researchers made the game-changing discovery by subjecting the Archaeopteryx fossil to super-strong x-rays: the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, in California.
SLAC physicist Uwe Bergmann, who led the x-ray scanning experiment, said: "People have never used a technique this sensitive on Archaeopteryx before. Because the SSRL beam is so bright, we were able to see the teeniest chemical traces that nobody thought were there."
CMW Institute researcher Bob Morton said: "The discovery that certain fossils retain the detailed chemistry of the original organisms offers scientists a new avenue for learning about long-extinct creatures."
Click to view image: 'The oldest known bird, the Archaeopteryx, reveals '
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