A recent study conducted by scientists from University College Cork (UCC) and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source (SSRL) at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Laboratory has revealed that dinosaurs’ feathers had a protein composition similar to that of modern birds. This suggests that the chemistry of bird feathers may have originated approximately 125 million years ago.

Previous research had shown that dinosaur feathers contained proteins that made them less rigid than those of modern birds. However, this new study reveals that dinosaurs’ feathers originally had a protein composition very similar to that of modern birds, indicating that the chemistry of bird feathers has a much older origin than previously thought.

The scientists used powerful X-rays generated at the SSRL to analyze feathers from the dinosaur Sinornithosaurus, the primitive bird Confuciusornis, and a feather from 50 million years ago found in the United States. By examining the fossils with X-rays, the researchers were able to determine if the key components of beta proteins, which strengthen feathers for flight, were present.

The analysis showed that although some fossil feathers contained many alpha-keratin proteins, they were likely not originally present. Instead, these alpha proteins formed during the fossilization process due to the extreme heat experienced by the fossils over time.

These findings have important implications for our understanding of the chemical preservation of ancient biomolecules and the evolution of feathers. By developing new tools to understand the fossilization process, researchers hope to uncover the chemical secrets of fossils and gain exciting new insights into evolution.

– “New research reveals dinosaur feathers had a protein composition similar to modern birds, hinting at an early origin of bird feather chemistry, possibly 125 million years ago.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 September 2023.