The Archaeopteryx, which lived around 150 million years ago and was a mixture of bird traits (notably feathers) and reptile traits (teeth, claws on its wings), was previously thought to have black feathers. But a new analysis of three Archaeopteryx fossils has revealed that the ancient bird's feathers were in fact light in color, with a dark edge and tips.
The distinct black-and-white patterns on the bird's plumage are comparable to the pigmentation of a magpie, said study co-author Roy Wogelius, a geochemist at the University of Manchester.
"This creature was actually doing very well in terms of evolutionary state. It already has a key adaptation that we see in many modern species of bird," said study leader and University of Manchester paleontologist Phil Manning, who is a National Geographic grantee.
Like modern-day birds, the Archaeopteryx would have benefited from the different shadings.
The scan found traces of copper that produced the dark tips of the bird's feather; copper has properties that can keep away bacteria that would otherwise fray wings. The copper also slowed the "microbial breakdown" of the fossil, Manning notes: "It's the reason the feather has been preserved for 150 million years to the point where we still see astounding resolution in the fossil."