Exceptional three-dimensional preservation and coloration of an originally iridescent fossil feather from the Middle Eocene Messel Oil Shale

Natasha S. Vitek, Jakob Vinther, James D. Schiffbauer, Derek E G Briggs, Richard O. Prum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


A feather from the Eocene Messel Formation, Germany, has been demonstrated to have been originally structurally colored by densely packed sheets of melanosomes similar to modern iridescent feathers exhibiting thin-film diffraction. The fossil itself currently exhibits a silvery sheen, but the mechanism for generating this optical effect was not fully understood. Here we use scanning electron microscopy, electron probe microanalysis, and dual-beam focused ion beam scanning electron microscopy to investigate the source of the silvery sheen that occurs in the apical feather barbules. Focused ion beam scanning electron microscopy provides a powerful tool for studying three-dimensionality of nanostructures in fossils. Use of the method reveals that the flattened apical barbules are preserved almost perfectly, including smooth structural melanosome sheets on the obverse surface of the fossil feather that are identical to those that cause iridescence in modern bird feathers. Most of each apical barbule is preserved beneath a thin layer of sediment. The silvery sheen is generated by incoherent light diffraction between this sediment layer and melanosomes and, although related to the original iridescence of the feather, is not a feature of the feather itself. The reddish and greenish hues frequently exhibited by fossil feathers from the Messel Formation appear to be due to precipitates on the surface of individual melanosomes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)493-503
Number of pages11
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2013


  • Color
  • Exceptional preservation
  • Fossil bird
  • Iridescence
  • Melanin

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