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Famous fossil is not an Archaeopteryx feather after all

Lasers solve the mystery of the missing quill.

(Daniel Eskriidge/Shutterstock)
  • The famous fossilized feather found in the 1860s is from some unknown animal.
  • The fossil's missing quill has long kept its identity unknown.
  • We're just at the beginning of our awareness of feathered dinosaurs.

Some time in the early 1860s, at the Solnhofen Community Quarry located about halfway between Munich and Nuremburg in Germany, a fossilized feather was discovered in shale deposits. The first mention of it appeared in 1861, in letters from paleontologist Christian Erich Hermann von Meyer — who described its appearance on two facing slabs of stone — to the editor of the German journal "Jahrbuch für Mineralogie". von Meyer proposed the feather be named Archaeopteryx lithographica. Six weeks later, von Meyer again wrote to announce a second discovery: A nearly complete skeleton of a feathered dinosaur found in the same deposits. The closeness of the timing and location caused the two finds to be linked together, with the feather considered the singular piece of evidence — the holotype — of a bird-like dinosaur to be called Archaeopteryx. Now, a new analysis of the fossil using Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence (LSF) has revealed, nearly 160 years later, that the two actually had nothing to do with each other other than proximity. Nature's Scientific Reports published the surprising result.

The case of the missing quill

One of the obstacles to a thorough understanding of the fossil has been that the feather it depicts has no quill, or calamus. Analysis of the calamus would have allowed scientists to ascertain the source of the feather on the animal from which it came. Was it a large primary wing feather, a secondary feather from the smaller secondary wing, or a tail feather called a primary covert?

When the discovery of the feather became public in 1862, the feather was described as having a calamus, and von Meyer drew it with one. However, there's nothing there to the naked eye or when the fossil is viewed under x-ray fluorescence or with UV imaging.

Original drawing by von Meyer, top. Fossil under white light today, bottom

(Kaye, et al)

Enter Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence

A microscopic examination of the fossil revealed to the authors of the new paper, led by Thomas G. Kaye, that there had originally been a quill present, but that "past preparation had engraved around the outline of the feather and inadvertently prepared away the calamus at some unknown point in the past."

The LSF uses a high-powered laser to expose geochemical differences between the fossil and the stone background. The chemicals fluoresce with different colors. In the end, LSF was able to recover the geochemical halo left behind by the missing materials. The halo perfectly matched von Meyer's drawing, as well, providing even more confidence of its accuracy.

The feather is, in fact, a primary covert. But there's something else.

LSF image of feather fossil with calamus halo

(Kaye, et al)

The Archaeopteryx lithographica is not from an Archaeopteryx

In the years since the 1860s, other specimens of feathered dinosaurs have been found, including 11 or 12 specimens of Archaeopteryx, notably one residing in a Berlin museum. While the newly identified primary covert somewhat resembles the Berlin specimen's secondary feathering — its closest match among all existing Archaeopteryx specimens — they're clearly not the same.

Drawing of the 1860s feather superimposed over its closest match from the Berlin specimen

(Kay, et al)

So, whose feather is it?

While it could be that the fossil is of an Archaeopteryx feather not yet catalogued, the greater likelihood is that it belonged to some other, thus far undiscovered feathered dinosaur. The inevitable implication? There were more bird-like dinosaurs in the Jurassic than we realized.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

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  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Lee Jae-Sung of Korea Republic lies on the pitch holding his knee during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group F match between Korea Republic and Germany at Kazan Arena on June 27, 2018 in Kazan, Russia.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Technology & Innovation

Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

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