Millions of years ago, some bird met the end of its life. Maybe it happened to flutter to the ground in a special place at a special time, where maybe, just maybe, the conditions were right to preserve its remains for millions of years. It might then have made its way to us, in the the black, scabby outcrops of British Columbia’s Burgess Shale, or the limestone of the Solnhofen region of Germany, or the layered sediments of the Huajiying Formation in eastern China.
Fossils are accidents. Only the barest fraction of bones wind up this way, owing to very particular combinations of location, temperature, pressure, and time. Most bones are broken and ground down, so anything that becomes a fossil is a rare exception, not the rule. And within this realm of outliers, there’s an even more unusual category of “exceptional” fossils—ones that preserve feathers, skin, or other anatomical structures.
A prehistoric feather would have the best chance of sticking around if it happened to be buried—while still fresh—in fine-grained sediment in a low-oxygen environment. (The prolific fossil sites listed above all had this going for them.) Evan Saitta, a postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, compares the scenario to a video game, in which a player has to keep overcoming obstacles and leveling up. “Your earlier levels are things like getting buried by sediment and avoiding microbial decay,” Saitta says. “You have to pass those levels with organics still intact.”
Fossils that clear those hurdles and persist for millions of years are loaded with information for scientists. Some might have preserved melanosomes, which researchers can use to reconstruct the color of an animal’s skin or plumage. Structures in the feathers can help explain how they emerged and evolved….
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