The first Jurassic feather – SVP abstract 2016

Pittman et al. 2016
describe a new way of looking at fossils, with laser stimulated fluorescence. I can’t show you what attendees saw at SVP as it is awaiting publication, but other examples can be seen here online. This image from Tom Kaye (Fig. 1) was bumped by me with Photoshop to increase contrast and perhaps reveal a wee bit more detail.

Figure 1. Archaeopteryx feather from T. Kaye. Second image is Photoshop contrast bump created here.

Figure 1. Archaeopteryx feather from T. Kaye. Second image is Photoshop contrast bump created here. Pittman et al. laser stimulated fluorescence imagery was shown at SVP and is awaiting publication. 

From the Pittman et al. 2016 abstract
“The single feather initial holotype of Archaeopteryx lithographica is one of the world’s most iconic fossils, but contains a 150 year old mystery. The specimen’s 1862 description by Hermann von Meyer shows that the calamus is 15 mm long and 1 mm wide. However, the calamus is no longer visible on the fossil, and there is no record of when or how it disappeared. The specimen is a rare example of a lone Archaeopteryx feather, giving access to its entire morphology, as opposed to only parts of it in the overlapping feathers of articulated specimens. This makes it an important addition to the anatomical record of Archaeopteryx and basal birds more generally. After 150 years, laser stimulated fluorescence has recovered the calamus as a chemical signature in the matrix and reveals preparation marks where the original surface details have been obliterated. The feather has recently been imaged by others under UV light as well as with X-rays at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, with no reports of the existence of the calamus. This demonstrates the capability of laser stimulated fluorescence to visualize important data outside the range of current methodologies. The feather has at different times, been cited as a primary, secondary and covert, and has even been suggested to belong to another taxon. With the new calamus data in hand, the morphology of the feather was examined within the framework of modern feather anatomy. The percentage of calamus length to overall feather length, when plotted against a histogram of 30 phylogenetically and ecologically diverse modern birds, comes out in the middle of the range, placing it in the flight feather regime. The most recent identification of the feather as a primary dorsal covert can be discounted because the rachis is in line with the calamus rather than curving upwind of the calamus centre line. The curvature of the rachis is also too pronounced to function as a primary or tail feather. If the feather is scaled as a secondary in the wing of Archaeopteryx, only five feathers fit the reconstruction along the ulna, rather than the 9-13 that have been estimated for this taxon and the 7-14 that are found in modern birds. These inferences suggest that the isolated feather is fundamentally inconsistent with those of Archaeopteryx and is instead a secondary of another early bird taxon or potentially even a feather of a non-avialan pennaraptoran theropod.”

Kaye’s work with fossil imaging
has revealed many interesting and otherwise invisible traits. Let’s call this one more ‘feather in his cap.’

Pittman M, Kaye TG, Schwarz D, Pei R and Xu X 2016. 150 year old Archaeopteryx mystery solved. Abstract from the 2016 meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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