Color Blue Distinguished for the First Time Ever in Bird Fossils

Researchers have discovered tones of blue in prehistoric fossilized bird feathers.
Fabienne Lang
Reconstruction of Eocoracis brachyptera/hypothesised plumage colourationMarta Zaher/University of Bristol

Paleontologists rejoice, as for the first time ever, the color blue has been recognized in prehistoric bird feather fossils. 

Scientists and paleontologists have long known that melanin pigment can be found in fossils, giving black, reddish brown and grey colors to prehistoric animals.

All of which assists in understanding ecology and the history of animals on earth now. 


The way scientists find these pigments is by observing melanin packages called melanosomes - microscopic shapes of tiny cylindrical objects, much like miniature sausages.

Color Blue Distinguished for the First Time Ever in Bird Fossils
Pigment Containers. Source: Frane Babarovic/ University of Bristol

Through this format, scientists from the University of Bristol in the UK have discovered non-iridescent colors structural colors, as we see on today's hummingbirds' plumage. 

Up until now, this was still unknown in fossils. 

How did the scientists discover the blue coloring?

Head researcher, Frane Babarovic from the University of Bristol but currently based at the University of Sheffield, and his team have shown how the blue feather melanosomes are distinct from the black, reddish brown and grey feather melanosomes. 

The team looked at plumage coloration schemes of modern representative fossil specimens and reconstructed which color was most likely to have appeared in the fossil specimen. By doing this, they could differentiate between grey and blue melanosomes

This was a tricky endeavor, as blue and grey melanosomes, for example, look very similar under the microscope. Furthermore, there was overlap in colors as the feathers did not only hold one singular color scheme. 

They reconstructed the prehistoric Eocoracias brachyptera as a mostly blue-feathered bird. 

Color Blue Distinguished for the First Time Ever in Bird Fossils
Researchers sampled this fossil of Eocoracias brachyptera in hopes of finding fossilized pigment sacs called melanosomes. Source: Sven Traenkner/ Senckenberg Nature Museum Frankfurt via EurekaAlert

 What does the team say?

Babarovic said, "We have discovered that melanosomes in blue feathers have a distinct range in size from most of colour categories and we can, therefore, constrain which fossils may have been blue originally."

He continued: "Based on these results in our publication we have also hypothesized potential evolutionary transition between blue and grey colour."

The research is not done yet, as the team needs to now discover which birds are most likely to have blue feathers based on their ecologies and ways of life.

Even though the color blue is quite common in nature, its function and ecology remain relatively unknown. 

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