For well over a century, it was believed that the first-ever dinosaur feather discovered by archaeologists belonged to the Archaeopteryx, a creature widely thought to be the “missing link” between feathered dinosaurs and modern birds. However, new research, as well as the use of advanced imaging techniques, suggests that this fossilized feather might actually belong to a completely different creature.
As explained by Gizmodo, archaeologists found the first dinosaur feather in 1861, spotting the fossil in Late Jurassic Era limestones in southern Germany. As Archaeopteryx was discovered soon after and theorized to be a transitional creature bridging ancient reptiles and modern birds, researchers posited that the fossil found in 1861 was most likely an Archaeopteryx feather. However, there were several missing features in the feather that cast doubt on the theory, which is where the new research came in.
In a study published Monday in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of scientists presented a new theory about the first dinosaur feather, one that was based on their use of advanced imaging technology called laser-stimulated fluorescence (LSF). This technique allowed the researchers to determine that the fossil contained the missing quill that had sparked the debate on whether the feather belonged to Archaeopteryx or not.
“The morphology of the complete feather excludes it as a primary, secondary or tail feather of Archaeopteryx,” read an excerpt from the study’s abstract quoted by Fox News.
“However, it could be a covert or a contour feather, especially since the latter are not well known in Archaeopteryx.”
As further explained, the missing quill was important because such a feature allows scientists to determine what part of an animal’s body the feather belonged to. According to Fox News, previous research suggested that the first dinosaur feather was specifically a primary covert feather or tail feather. However, the scientists behind the new study used LSF to conclude that the fossil was not a tail feather due to the lack of an s-shaped centerline.
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“LSF detected the missing quill of the isolated feather when x-ray fluorescence and [ultraviolet] techniques did not,” said study co-author Michael Pittman of the University of Hong Kong, in an interview with Gizmodo.
“The quill only remains as a geochemical ‘ghost’ (or halo) because the original fossil material is no longer preserved. LSF demonstrated great sensitivity to this halo, recognizing previously unappreciated detection limitations in other applied techniques.”
Based on the researchers’ comparisons of the first dinosaur feather against those from all known Archaeopteryx specimens with preserved feathers, Pittman stressed that the fossil could likely belong to an “unknown feathered dinosaur.”
“The possibility remains that it stems from a different feathered dinosaur that lived in the Solnhofen Archipelago [in southern Germany],” the researchers added in the abstract.
Despite how the study raised some new questions regarding the actual owner of the first dinosaur feather, the researchers believe that this creature might not have been too different from Archaeopteryx. This, according to Gizmodo, suggests that bird-like dinosaurs are more diverse a group of species than once thought and that there may be several fossils of unknown species that have yet to be spotted by researchers.