As a rule, soft parts do not withstand the ravages of time; hence, the majority of vertebrate fossils consist only of bones. Under these circumstances, a new discovery from the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Messel Pit” near Darmstadt in Germany comes as an even bigger surprise: a 48-million-year old skin gland from a bird, containing lipids of the same age. The oldest lipids ever recorded in a fossil vertebrate were used by the bird to preen its plumage.
“As shown by our detailed chemical analysis, the lipids have kept their original chemical composition, at least in part, over a span of 48 million years. The long-chain hydrocarbon compounds from the fossil remains of the uropygial gland can clearly be differentiated from the oil shale surrounding the fossil,” explains Mayr. The analysis offers proof that the fossil artifact constitutes one of the oldest preserved uropygial glands — a suspicion which had already been suggested by the arrangement at the fossil bird skeleton, albeit not finally confirmed.
For Mayr and his colleagues, the discovery constitutes a milestone for paleontologists. “The 40-million-year-old lipids demonstrate the potential extent of preservation possible under favorable conditions — not just bones and hairs and feathers, as previously assumed. If we find more of these lipids, we will be able to better reconstruct the lifestyle of these animals. For example, it would be interesting to find out whether feathered dinosaurs, as the ancestors of birds, already possessed uropygial glands and preened their plumages,” adds Jakob Vinther of the University of Bristol, one of the study’s co-authors, in closing.Paper. (paywall) – Shane O’Reilly, Roger Summons, Gerald Mayr, Jakob Vinther. Preservation of uropygial gland lipids in a 48-million-year-old bird. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2017; 284 (1865): 20171050 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.1050 More.
If analyzable soft tissue keeps turning up, paleontology will become a feeder field for molecular biology, which means that it can no longer be the preserve of Darwin’s Fossils, propping up their belief systems, secure in the fact that very few other people had or could get much evidence for anything else.
And so let’s have another look at the soft dinosaur tissues?
See also: Food for thought from that paywalled soft dino tissue article in Science
Is Mark Armitage’s soft dinosaur tissue work a replication of Mary Schweitzer? If so…?
Is there some reason that paleontologists do NOT want soft dinosaur tissue?
Dinosaur found with preserved skin
Dinosaur found with preserved tail feathers, skin