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An American kestrel feather (left), and the X-ray fluorescence maps of zinc (shown with a red filter), calcium (blue) and benzo-sulfur (yellow) in the same feather.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

Revealing the True Colors of Extinct Animals

X-ray analysis of bird feathers could help paint a colorful picture of ancient animals.

| 2 min read

X-ray analysis of bird feathers could help paint a colorful picture of ancient animals.

Scientists are brushing up on extinct animal colors.

Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, an international team used X-ray analysis to map the pigments in feathers of living birds — information they hope will allow them to detect traces of pigments in the tissues of fossilized creatures, such as dinosaurs.

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They focused on a pigment called melanin, which is responsible for much of the color variation in humans, mammals, and birds. One type of melanin makes animals appear dark brown-black, and another type gives a reddish yellow appearance.

"Melanin is a very important component in biology, but its exact chemistry is still not precisely known, especially as to how metals such as calcium, copper and zinc interact with it," said Nick Edwards, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Manchester and the lead author of the study, in a press release.

Looking at feathers shed by birds living in sanctuaries, the researchers found that it was possible to determine which type of melanin was present in the feathers based on detection of certain metals with X-rays.

For example, brightly colored birds of prey reliably contained zinc in their red feathers that was bound to sulphur in a certain way. Whereas zinc unbound to sulphur was a better indicator of the black form of melanin.

"With X-rays, one of the advantages is that we're able to map these visual patterns in the chemical elements associated with colors in a non-destructive way," sais Dimosthenis Sokaras, staff scientist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and a co-author on the paper.

With their chemical-color key in hand, the researchers hope to be able to reconstruct the appearance of extinct animals with greater accuracy in the future.

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