Scientists report today that they have taken a big step in determining what the first birds looked like more than 100 million years ago, when their relatives, the dinosaurs, still ruled the Earth. At the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, they discovered chemical traces of a pigment, an important component of color, that once formed patterns in the feathers of the fossilized birds.
The pigment, eumelanin, is one of the coloring agents responsible for brown eyes and dark hair in many modern species, including humans. It would have been one of the factors that determined the birds' color patterns, along with structural properties of the birds' feathers and other pigments they ingested as part of their diets.
The discovery, reported June 30 in Science Express, will help give textbook illustrators, diorama makers and Hollywood special-effects artists a more realistic palette for their depictions of ancient animals. Understanding these pigment patterns is important for science, too, since they play a role in a wide range of behaviors that are important in evolution such as camouflage, communication and selecting mates.