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Modern bird feathers contain traces of dinosaur feathers

Traces of ancient proteins found in fossilized dinosaur feathers may shed new light on the evolution of feathers, according to a study from University College Cork.

The research was led by Dr. Tiffany Slater and Professor Maria McNamara of UCC’s School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Science. The experts collaborated with scientists based at Linyi University and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. 

Fossil proteins

“Fossil proteins are valuable tools in evolutionary biology. Recent technological advances and better integration of experimental methods have confirmed the feasibility of biomolecular preservation in deep time, yielding new insights into the timing of key evolutionary transitions,” wrote the researchers. 

Focus of the study

The team analyzed 125-million-year-old feathers from the dinosaur Sinornithosaurus and the early bird Confuciusornis from China, in addition to a 50-million-year-old feather from the United States.

While previous research indicated that modern feathers have a different composition than ancient feathers, the new study reveals that they share the same protein composition. 

According to the experts, this confirms that the chemistry of feathers originated much earlier than previously thought. 


“It’s really exciting to discover new similarities between dinosaurs and birds,” said Dr. Slater. 

“To do this, we developed a new method to detect traces of ancient feather proteins. Using X-rays and infrared light we found that feathers from the dinosaur Sinornithosaurus contained lots of beta-proteins, just like feathers of birds today.” 

The team ran experiments to investigate how feather proteins break down during the fossilization process. This helped the experts interpret the chemical signals preserved in the fossil feathers.

Weird chemistry

“Modern bird feathers are rich in beta-proteins that help strengthen feathers for flight,” said Dr. Slater.  

“Previous tests on dinosaur feathers, though, found mostly alpha-proteins. Our experiments can now explain this weird chemistry as the result of protein degradation during the fossilization process.” 

“So although some fossil feathers do preserve traces of the original beta-proteins, other fossil feathers are damaged and tell us a false narrative about feather evolution.” 

The researchers noted that experiments show that feather beta-proteins can survive moderate thermal maturation. “As predicted by our experiments, analyses of Mesozoic feathers confirm that evidence of feather CBPs can persist through deep time,” they wrote.

“Traces of ancient biomolecules can clearly survive for millions of years, but you can’t read the fossil record literally because even seemingly well-preserved fossil tissues have been cooked and squashed during fossilization,” said study senior author Professor Maria McNamara.

“We’re developing new tools to understand what happens during fossilization and unlock the chemical secrets of fossils. This will give us exciting new insights into the evolution of important tissues and their biomolecules. “

The research is published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

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