Archaeopteryx feathers and bone chemistry fully revealed via synchrotron imaging

U. Bergmann, R. W. Morton, P. L. Manning, W. I. Sellers, S. Farrar, K. G. Huntley, R. A. Wogelius, P. Larson

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Evolution of flight in maniraptoran dinosaurs is marked by the acquisition of distinct avian characters, such as feathers, as seen in Archaeopteryx from the Solnhofen limestone. These rare fossils were pivotal in confirming the dinosauria-avian lineage. One of the key derived avian characters is the possession of feathers, details of which were remarkably preserved in the Lagerstätte environment. These structures were previously simply assumed to be impressions; however, a detailed chemical analysis has, until now, never been completed on any Archaeopteryx specimen. Here we present chemical imaging via synchrotron rapid scanning X-ray fluorescence (SRS-XRF) of the Thermopolis Archaeopteryx, which shows that portions of the feathers are not impressions but are in fact remnant body fossil structures, maintaining elemental compositions that are completely different from the embedding geological matrix. Our results indicate phosphorous and sulfur retention in soft tissue as well as trace metal (Zn and Cu) retention in bone. Other previously unknown chemical details of Archaeopteryx are also revealed in this study including: bone chemistry, taphonomy (fossilization process), and curation artifacts. SRS-XRF represents a major advancement in the study of the life chemistry and fossilization processes of Archaeopteryx and other extinct organisms because it is now practical to image the chemistry of large specimens rapidly at concentration levels of parts per million. This technique has wider application to the archaeological, forensic, and biological sciences, enabling the mapping of "unseen" compounds critical to understanding biological structures, modes of preservation, and environmental context.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)9060-9065
    Number of pages5
    JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
    Issue number20
    Publication statusPublished - 18 May 2010


    • Trace elements
    • X-ray absorption spectroscopy


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