March of the Fossil Penguins

Fossil penguin discoveries and research

Posts Tagged ‘Feathers

Painting Fossil Penguins

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Last post, we discussed a new type of pigment discovered in the feathers of living penguins.  With a little bit of evolutionary tree-based reasoning, it is possible to project the distribution of this color back into the fossil record as well. In his blog Illuminating Fossils, Dr. Daniel Thomas does just that.  Check out the post to see how we can reconstruct the color of the fossil penguin Madrynornis.  You can also learn more about Madrynornis in this past post.

Image by Dr. Daniel Thomas, with Yellow-eyed penguin photo from Christian Mehlfuhrer, Macaroni penguin photo from Liam Quinn, Madrynornis images from Acosta Hospitaleche et al. 2007. Click to read the article at Illuminating Fossils.

Image by Dr. Daniel Thomas, with Yellow-eyed penguin photo from Christian Mehlfuhrer, Macaroni penguin photo from Liam Quinn, Madrynornis images from Acosta Hospitaleche et al. 2007. Click to read the article at Illuminating Fossils.

Written by Dan Ksepka

June 17, 2013 at 6:31 pm

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A New Pigment in Penguins

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Color is one of the things that draws people to birds.  If one is not filled with wonder upon seeing a pink flamingo, an iridescent hummingbird or a rainbow macaw, it may be time for some serous introspection.  Not all colors are created by the same means.  Birds use a dazzling array of biological strategies to create color.  Many of these come from pigments.  Melanin, a pigment that is also found in our own skin and hair, generates colors like grey and reddish brown. Porphyrins create colors including bright greens and reds.  Some pigments come from external sources – carotenoids are made by plants, but birds like cardinals and goldfinches gain their colors by harvesting these pigments from seeds. Some pigments can even leave traces in the fossil record.  The fossil penguin Inkayacu paracasensis preserves feathers with melanosomes, the organelles that hold melanin inside feathers.

Aside from pigments,  colors can be generated by structure – created by the way the feather refracts light.  An example is the blue color generated by nanostructures in the Little Blue Penguin.  Birds can even produce colors outside the visual light spectrum. Many species, including the King Penguin, have ultraviolet markings that they can see but humans cannot (more on this in a future post).

A crested penguin shows off its special pigment.

A crested penguin shows off its special pigment.

Recently, Dr. Daniel Thomas and colleagues reported a new type of bird pigment known to occur only in penguins.  This pigment is responsibly for the  yellow “ninja mask” of the Yellow-Eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) as well as the rakish yellow plumes of the Eudyptes penguins (the group the includes Macaronis and Rockhoppers). It is also seen in the rich orange neck feathers of King and Emperor Penguins (Aptenodytes).  Dr. Thomas and his team used Raman Spectroscopy to unravel the chemical composition of this pigment.  Surprisingly, the composition turned out not to match any of the previously known major classes of color-generating chemicals (carotenoids, melanins, porphyrins, psittacofulvins and metal oxides).

One additional interesting implication reported in the study is that the pigment is most likely synthesized directly by penguins.  This is because penguins will grow the brightly colored yellow or orange feathers regardless of their diet – we see them in penguins gobbling down fish, squid, or krill in different wild populations and in zoos where food is carefully regulated. So, it does not appear they are gaining the color from their food like flamingos, which turn white if they don’t consume certain invertebrate prey.

Reference:

Thomas, DB, McGoverin CM., McGraw KJ. James HF, Madden O. 2013. Vibrational spectroscopic analyses of unique yellow feather pigments (spheniscins) in penguins. Journal of the Royal Society Interface:10, 20121065.

Written by Dan Ksepka

June 1, 2013 at 6:24 pm

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A White Penguin

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David Stephens at National Geographic snapped this picture of a rare white penguin on the Aitcho Islands. This Chinstrap Penguin (Pygoscelis antarcticus) is not albino, it is leucistic.  Albino animals lack pigment, typically because of a flaw in an enzyme involved in producing melanin.  You may remember learning a little about penguin melanin in the fossil penguin Inkayacu. Leucistic animals are able to form melanin, but generally have a mix of cells that  produce melanin and cells that cannot.  This results in a “washed out” appearance in cases like the penguin below.   Whatever triggered the condition (typically a gene mutation is involved), the penguin ended up with light brownish coloration on its back instead of the black coloration of normal Chinstrap Penguins.  Notice, though, that the beak and part of the feet are still black.  Leucism often affects a particular area of a bird rather than the entire individual.  White penguins turn up in the wild every year. However, it appears that either the mutations associated with leucism are recessive or the condition harms the penguins by ruining their counter-shading camouflage, because second generations have never been documented.

Leucistic Chinstrap Penguin photo by David Stephens. Click to see the original article and see a video.

Written by Dan Ksepka

February 9, 2012 at 11:18 pm

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Structural Color in the Little Blue Penguin

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How do birds get their color?  Light absorption  by pigments is one way color can be produced.  Bird feathers have pigments like melanins and carotenoids – we even have evidence for color in the fossil penguin Inkayacu from fossilized melanin-bearing structures.  Color can also be produced by physical interactions between light and biological nanostructures. These colors are called structural colors.

Left: Microscope image of keratin nanofibers in a penguin feather (photo by Liliana D’Alba). Right: Little Blue Penguin, taking a break at the aquarium.

Recently the color of Little Blue Penguins was found to be generated by a new type of structural color.  As their name implies, Little Blues are both small and wrapped in bluish feathers.  A previously unrecognized nanostructure is responsible for the blue feather barbs of these penguins.   Structural color can be generated by several different types of structures, such as tiny spheres or channels.  However, researchers were surprised to find a completely unknown nanostructural arrangement in the penguin feathers.  At the subcellular level, Little Blue Penguin feather barbs are composed of parallel b-keratin nanofibres organized into densely packed bundles.  Essentially, the miniscule structures  scatter light waves so as to give off blue color.

This is an important discovery, because learning how birds make color at the nanostructural level may help scientists synthesize artificial colored structures in the lab.  Of course, it also has implications for penguin evolution.  We are only beginning to understand how the microstructure of feathers affects their function in the air and under water.  Exciting research is on the horizon, and future investigations may yield a better understanding of what exactly makes  penguin feathers so efficient at insulation and streamlining.

Reference:

D’Alba L; Sarananthan V; Clarke JA; Vinther JA; Prum RO; Shawkey MD. 2011. Colour-producing β-keratin nanofibres in blue penguin (Eudyptula minor) feathers. Biology Letters. February 9 doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.1163: 1

Written by Dan Ksepka

June 13, 2011 at 11:13 am

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Three Discoveries, Part III: Fossil Color

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In the last two posts, we recounted the discovery of the fossil and its feathers hiding in the block.  Inkayacu provided one last surprise in the lab.  Not only were feathers and skin intact, but the feathers preserved some microscopic structures giving us a glimpse into the color of an extinct penguin.

After finding several different types of feathers, our team carefully removed small samples to explore with Scanning Electron Microscopy.  Matthew Shawkey and Liliana D’Alba (working  at the University of Akron) and Jakob Vinther (working at Yale University) analysed the microstructure of the feathers and discovered that melanosomes were preserved in some samples. Melanosomes are microscopic organelles that carry pigments.   These bean-shaped structures are responsible for generating certain colors in bird feathers, such as black, grey and red.  We have melanosomes ourselves, and they play a role in determining hair color.   Different sizes and shapes of melanosomes generate different colors in bird feathers, so by measuring the dimensions of the fossil melanosomes, team members were able to estimate the color these fossil feathers would have been in life.  Reconstructions of samples from the feathers on the underside of the flipper support a reddish-brown hue, while isolated body contour feathers found in the block of rock encasing the penguin skeleton appear to have been colored grey and reddish brown.

Finding evidence for these colors was unexpected, because most living penguins are black and white.  This is a good color scheme for an aquatic predator, because the white underside makes the animal harder to see from below and the black back makes it harder to see from above.  A black and white countershaded pattern is employed by many other animals that hunt underwater, such as Razorbills (auks), Killer Whales,  and many sharks.  We don’t know the entire color scheme of Inkayacu because we only have wing feathers and a few body contour feathers to study.  Because the contour feathers were loose in the sediment, we can’t tell whether they were from the front, back or side of the bird.  Still, the presence of reddish brown feathers on the underside of the wing suggests an unusual color pattern, perhaps foregoing the standard countershading to create a more seal or dolphin-like solid outline.

It is interesting to note that brown and grey colors do characterize the hatchlings and juveniles of some penguin species.  For example, King Penguins in their second molt look like big brown piles of leaves.  This raises the question of whether the first specimen of Inkayacu is actually an immature individual.  So far, that seems to be unlikely, because all of the bones have a finished texture and elements that remain separate in young birds are fully fused together in the Inkayacu specimen.  This evidence strongly supports adult status.

 

 

Reconstruction of Inkayacu based on color signal from preserved melanosomes (artwork by Katie Browne). Inset: scanning electron microscope image of fossilized melanosomes from Inkayacu.

 

Written by Dan Ksepka

October 11, 2010 at 7:17 pm

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Three Discoveries, Part II: Feathers!

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Continuing the story of Inkayacu, we find ourselves in the paleontology lab back in Lima.  After being carefully excavated, plastered and transported back to the museum, Pedro the fossil penguin needed to be soaked in water.  This helped protect the fossil from the rapid change in environment.  After spending several million years in one of the most arid environments on Earth, the fossil was suddenly going to be exposed to the  humid airs of Lima.  This could spell bad news for the fossil, because salts concentrated in the rock long ago would rapidly expand with moisture – the growing crystals could literally pop the fossil bone apart with tiny fractures, as has happened to desert fossils before.  To prevent this, the team soaked the block for several days to draw the salts out into solution, rather then letting them form crystals.  Afterwards, the marathon of preparing away the rock could begin. Walter Aguirre of the Museo completed many of the bones, and the US team including Dr. Julia Clarke and students Drew Eddy and Adam Smith (then at NCSU, now at UT Austin), along with Dr. Paul Brinkman and Vince Schneider of the North Carolina Museum or Natural Science traveled several times to join in.

Dr. Paul Brinkman (right) and myself (left), preparing the specimen in Lima.

Late into the evening, our team worked in the preparation station of the Museo de Historia Natural painstakingly removing bits of rock matrix from the bones of the penguin using tools like dental picks and needles set in pin vices. Up to this point, we were not sure whether there would be any other soft parts preserved with the skeleton but we proceeded carefully nonetheless, to avoid a careless scratch to the fossil bones.  I remember clearing bits of siltstone away from the femur when the moment of revelation came.  Julia Clarke flipped over a thin sheet of rock, and there underneath was a spectacular row of wing feathers.

The feathers were so exciting beause they offer our only glimpse into the transition between the normal flight feathers possessed by the flighted ancestors of penguins and the highly modified, scale-like feathers ofmodern penguins. Most living birds have about a dozen large primary flight feathers attached to the bones of the wing tip, but living penguins have several times as many small, stiff feathers in this region, covered by muliple rows of nearly identical scale-like feathers.  The rachises, or quills, of the feathers are widened and flattened as well.  This helps create a short, stiff flipper – terrible for flying through the air but perfect for propelling the bird through the water.

The first set of feathers exposed during fossil preparation - revealed after 36 million years buried in rock. These examples are penguin "flight" feathers, from the middle part of the wing - obviously too short for actual flight, but well suited for underwater propulsion.

As preparation of the block continued, we came upon feathers from other parts of the body loose in the matrix.  These feathers are body countour feathers, the feathers that help insulate and waterproof the penguin.  Several body countour feathers were found near the bones of the leg, but we cannot be sure exactly where they came from because they are no longer attached. These feathers were interesting because of their size.  Nearly complete examples measure about 3cm long, which is actually a bit shorter than the feathers of many smaller living penguin species.  Possibly, the length of the feathers is related not only to overall size but also to habitat.  Playing into this idea, some small Antarctic penguins have countour feathers about 50% longer than those of Inkayacu, which lived in a tropical environment.

The feathers had one more secret in store, and we will cover that in the next post.

Written by Dan Ksepka

October 5, 2010 at 11:23 am

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Three Discoveries, Part I: The Skeleton

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Last post, we  introduced Inkayacu, the newest fossil penguin species.  Over the next three posts, I’d like to write about the way the story took shape.  Inkayacu provides a great illustration of how science in paleontology proceeds, because in this discipline advances can come from two equally important events – discoveries of new fossils in the field and applications of new methods in the lab.   In this case, there were three big moments of discovery that contributed to the whole story.

Ali Altamirano, one of the authors of the formal  Science report, was responsible for the first big discovery.  Ali is a Peruvian student gifted with a talent for finding fossils in the desert.  Several years ago, while scanning the rocks of the coastal deserts of southern Peru, Ali caught the first glimpse of what may be the most significant bird fossil ever found in Peru.  When a team of paleontologists from the Museo de Historia Natural including curator Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi visited the site, they knew instantly this was no ordinary fossil.   Exposed near the surface was a scaley foot – 36 million year old bones wrapped in a remarkably well-preserved layer of skin.   This startling aspect of the find is what gave Inkayacu the nickname  Pedro.   The nickname comes from “scaley Pedro”, a scaley (slang for sleazy) character on a popular South American  TV show.

Ali Altamirano, discoverer of Inkayacu, records field notes at a fossil site.

Context of a fossil discovery is always important, and in this case it is quite remarkable.  Pedro’s skeleton was found in marine rocks, deposited when silts and sands from a coastal ocean environment compacted and lithified over time, and then were thrust up onto the land by plate tectonic action from the ongoing Andean uplift.  Indeed, the forces that heaved these oceanic slabs onto the continental crust are still operating today, as witnessed by the devastating earthquake that struck Peru in 2007.  Pedro lived in a very different environment than we typically think of when we envision ice-bound penguins at the South Pole.  The fossil site is near 14 degrees south latitude, close to the Equator, and so would have had a very warm climate. Furthermore, during the Eocene the Earth was warmer than today. Global sea temperature was several degrees higher on average, and there were no permanant polar ice caps.  So, Pedro was living in one of the hottest places on Earth during one of the hottest times in Earth history.

The skeleton of Inkayacu is beautifully well-preserved after such a stenuous 36 million year journal of burial, tectonic displacement, and ultimate exposure in the desert.  Below is a collage of most of the bones that were recovered (some are not shown because they were left in the rock so as not to disturb the feathers).  If you remember the post on Icadyptes salasi, you will note that the skull is similar to that species, especially in having a very long, pointed beak.  The flipper bones are a bit more slender, and also show evidence of key differences in the way the muscles and nerves were arranged that will no doubt lead to important new work on penguin flipper evolution.  Of course the attention right now is focused on the feathers, and rightfully so – we’ll delve into what they tell us in an upcoming post.

Skeletal elements from the Inkayacu holotype specimen, from the original paper by Clarke et al. (see references).

Reference:

Julia A. Clarke, Daniel T. Ksepka, Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi, Ali J. Altamirano, Matthew D. Shawkey,, & Liliana D’Alba, Jakob Vinther, Thomas J. DeVries, Patrice Baby (2010). Fossil Evidence for Evolution of the Shape and Color of Penguin Feathers Science : 10.1126/science.1193604 (Pre-print PDF at Science Express)

Written by Dan Ksepka

October 1, 2010 at 12:06 pm

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Introducing Inkayacu, the First Fossil Penguin with Feathers

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Today, an important  fossil penguin discovery was announced in the journal Science.  A new Peruvian penguin has been added to the panthenon of extinct species.  This fossil species was larger than the living Emperor Penguin and lived near the Equator, but that is only a small part of the story.  This fossil is goundbreaking because it is the only fossil penguin ever discovered with preserved feathers. I was fortunate to be involved in this study myself, so it seems like a good opportunity to provide some behind-the-scenes details of how a fossil goes from the desert to the museum to (hopefully) the popular imagination. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be posting some more details of the new fossil and what it means for our understanding of penguin evolution.  Today, we can start with the basics.

Soft tissue structures like skin and feathers are rarely preserved in the fossil record.  Feathers are even more rarely preserved in marine settings – most of the famous feathered fossils like the Liaoning dinosaurs and the Green River birds are from freshwater lakes. Nevertheless, the feathers of Inkayacu are preserved in remarkably good condition.  In the image below, a pair of Inkayacu feathers are compared to a feather from a living Emperor Penguin.   The rachis, or shaft, of the feather is clearly visible and shows the characteristic flattened shape of a modern penguin feather. Even the fine barbs branching off the rachis are visible.  And it doesn’t end there – under a scanning electron microscope, even microscopic melanosomes, intracellular structures that impart color to feathers, are visible.  This reveals a lot about Inkayacu, and we’ll delve into that a few posts down the road.  Note that even though we are dealing with a giant, roughly 5 foot long (swimming length) penguin the fossil feathers shown below are small, like those of living penguins, reaching about 3cm each.

Fossil feathers of Inkayacu compared to a modern Emperor Penguin feather. Note the flattened shape of the feather shaft, the fine preservation of the barbs and the similar darkened tips in two specimens.

The new species is named Inkayacu paracasensis. “Inkayacu” means “Water King” in the Quechua language, while “paracasensis” refers to the Reserva Nacional de Paracas, the national park where the fossil was found.  The nickname of the new fossil has long been Pedro, after a TV character popular in Peru.  The skeleton itself is exquisitely well preserved after lying buried in silt and sandstone in the desert for 36 million years.  In fact, it would be quite a big deal if only the bones were found – giant penguin skulls and skeletons are still very rare, and the skeleton of Inkayacu is remarkably complete.  These bones will be given their due in a follow-up post.

Reconstruction of Inkayacu paracasensis diving. Artwork by Katie Browne.

This is a good opportunity to thank the institutions that supported this research.  Our team is very grateful to the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council for funding the fossil fieldwork in Peru and back in the lab that helped make the Inkayacu project a reality.

To read the full story, follow this link to the original paper: http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/science.1193604

Reference:

Julia A. Clarke, Daniel T. Ksepka, Rodolfo Salas-Gismondi, Ali J. Altamirano, Matthew D. Shawkey,, & Liliana D’Alba, Jakob Vinther, Thomas J. DeVries, Patrice Baby (2010). Fossil Evidence for Evolution of the Shape and Color of Penguin Feathers Science : 10.1126/science.1193604 (Pre-print PDF at Science Express)

Written by Dan Ksepka

September 30, 2010 at 2:01 pm

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The Puerto Madryn Penguin

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Madrynornis mirandus is one of the better known fossil penguins, represented by almost the entire skeleton (although only one individual has been found so far).  This species lived about 10 million years ago in Argentina.  It was actually found almost 100km away from the city of Puerto Madryn along Golfo San José, but is named for the Puerto Madryn Formation. Madrynornis mirandus was about the same size as a modern Adélie penguin, which should be familiar to many as it is a popular zoo animal.  The species appears to have been a dietary generalist. From its based on bill shape, it probably ate fish and crustaceans.  In fact, there seems to be a fish – and a large one at that – preserved right next to the Madrynornis holotype specimen.  The disk-like bones near the feet of the penguin specimen are clearly not avian but instead belong to bony fish.  They are still lined up in a row, but there does not seem to be any other parts of the fish preserved, at least in the picture.  This particular specimen was of course much too big for Madrynornis to have tackled.

Skeleton of Madrynornis, modified from Accosta Hospitaleche et al (2007).

Madrynornis mirandus is important because it is a crown clade penguin.  This means the species shares the most recent common ancestor of all living penguins.  Penguins that branched off the evolutionary tree before this common ancestor evolved are called stem penguins. One can imagine these archaic penguins occupying the lower, “stem” part of a branching plant and the crown penguins occupying the tree top, or crown.  All stem penguins are by definition extinct, while crown penguins may be either living or extinct – a mix of green and brown leaves in the canopy.

Phylogenetic studies show Madrynornis mirandus is closely related to the living Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) and the crested penguins of the genus Eudyptes.  As the name suggests, the Yellow-eyed Penguin has a bright yellow eye with a stripe of yellow feathers across it. Eudyptes penguins are characterized by a crest of yellow head feathers that gives them a somewhat fancy visage.  One of the best known Eudyptes penguins, the Macaroni Penguin (Eudyptes chrysolophus) is actually named after a style of feathered hat fashionable the 1800s, not the noodle.

Examples of the head feathering of Megadyptes (left) and Eudyptes (right).

Knowing that Madrynornis mirandus is related to these living penguins enhances our inferences about the species.  Because the fossil occupies a branch on the tree in between the Megadyptes and Eudyptes branches, we can say that it is bracketed by those two living species.   This extant phylogenetic bracket concept was formalized by Dr. Larry Witmer and has been applied to many paleontological questions.  Many soft parts of an animal, like skin and feathers, don’t typically fossilize.  However, if we understand the evolutionary tree for a group and study the closest living relatives of the extinct species, we can make some extrapolations about these soft tissue features.  The strongest basis for inferring the morphology of a non-fossilized feature is when both living taxa that bracket the extinct species possess a feature – then we can safely assume the feature was probably present in the fossil too.  In the case of Madrynornis mirandus, we can be fairly confident the extinct species also had decorative yellow head feathers.  The evolutionary tree helps us “flesh out” the appearance of this long extinct penguin without having to just guess.

Another important aspect of crown fossils is that they can help us reconstruct the timing of evolutionary events.  Because Madrynornis mirandus occupies a branch in between the Eudyptes penguins and the Megadyptes penguins, we know these two groups must have separated off onto their own evolutionary pathways by at least 10 million years ago.  This is an important piece of data that can unlock a lot of information about the pattern and timing of penguin evolution.  We’ll cover how in a future post.

References:

Acosta Hospitaleche, C., C. Tambussi, M. Donato, and M. Cozzuol. 2007. A new Miocene penguin from Patagonia and its phylogenetic relationships. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 52: 299-314.

Witmer, L. M. 1995. The extant phylogenetic bracket and the importance of reconstructing soft tissues in fossils. In Functional morphology in vertebrate paleontology (ed. J. J. Thomason), pp. 19–33. Cambridge University Press

Written by Dan Ksepka

April 11, 2010 at 10:36 pm

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