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First fossil feather didn't belong to famed Archaeopteryx bird

By Brooks Hays
First fossil feather didn't belong to famed Archaeopteryx bird
The isolated Archaeopteryx feather is the first fossil feather ever discovered. Photo by University of Hong Kong

Feb. 4 (UPI) -- The first fossil feather was discovered 157 years ago. Though found in isolation, scientists linked the feather with the famed Archaeopteryx bird.

New analysis suggests the feather belonged to an unknown feathered dinosaur -- not Archaeopteryx.

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Shortly after its discovery in Germany in 1861, scientists described the feather in detail. The earliest description mentions a long quill, but today, no quill is visible. Modern imaging technologies have failed to settle the debate of the "missing quill."

Determining the presence of a quill is essential to classifying a feather as either primary, secondary or primary covert.

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Imaging efforts and analysis of the ancient feather have proven difficult due to its preservation in dark film. The latest efforts to decipher the feather relied on a new type of imaging technology called Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence.

The technology was developed by Michael Pittman, researcher at the University of Hong Kong, and Thomas Kaye, researcher with the Foundation for Scientific Advancement.

"My imaging work with Tom Kaye demonstrates that important discoveries remain to be made even in the most iconic and well-studied fossils," Pittman said in a news release.

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The new imaging technique rendered the ancient feather in record resolution, allowing scientists to compare the feather impression with other fossil feathers belonging to Archaeopteryx, as well as with the different types of feathers deployed by modern birds.

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Because the feather lacks an S-shaped centerline, scientists confirmed the fossil impression was not made by a modern bird's covert feather. The comparisons also showed the feather is unlike the primary, secondary and tail feather fossils found directly linked with Archaeopteryx remains.

Though the mystery was solved, questions remain. Scientists still don't know which feathered dinosaur species is responsible for the fossil impression.

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Researchers shared their analysis of the first fossil feather this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

"It is amazing that this new technique allows us to resolve the 150-year-old mystery of the missing quill," said Daniela Schwarz, study co-author in the study and curator for the fossil reptiles and bird collection at the Museum of Natural Science in Berlin.

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