Trace Metals as Biomarkers for Eumelanin Pigment in the Fossil Record

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Science  16 Sep 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6049, pp. 1622-1626
DOI: 10.1126/science.1205748

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Well-preserved fossils of pivotal early bird and nonavian theropod species have provided unequivocal evidence for feathers and/or downlike integuments. Recent studies have reconstructed color on the basis of melanosome structure; however, the chemistry of these proposed melanosomes has remained unknown. We applied synchrotron x-ray techniques to several fossil and extant organisms, including Confuciusornis sanctus, in order to map and characterize possible chemical residues of melanin pigments. Results show that trace metals, such as copper, are present in fossils as organometallic compounds most likely derived from original eumelanin. The distribution of these compounds provides a long-lived biomarker of melanin presence and density within a range of fossilized organisms. Metal zoning patterns may be preserved long after melanosome structures have been destroyed.

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