Scientists have long debated whether Archaeopteryx could indeed fly, and if so, how well.
Research led by Brown University determined the feathers of the raven-sized dinosaur were black, and that color and the parts of cells that would have supplied the pigment suggests the feathers would have contributed to a flying ability.
"If Archaeopteryx was flapping or gliding, the presence of melanosomes [pigment-producing parts of a cell] would have given the feathers additional structural support," lead author Ryan Carney, a Brown evolutionary biologist, said in a university release Tuesday.
"This would have been advantageous during this early evolutionary stage of dinosaur flight."
The researchers also determined Archaeopteryx's feather structure is identical to that of living birds, suggesting modern wing feathers had evolved as early as 150 million years ago in the Jurassic period.
"We can't say it's proof that Archaeopteryx was a flyer," Carney said. "But what we can say is that in modern bird feathers, these melanosomes provide additional strength and resistance to abrasion from flight, which is why wing feathers and their tips are the most likely areas to be pigmented."