Abstract

The Ingersoll shale (Santonian) is a small mudstone lens in eastern Alabama, interpreted as an abandoned tidal-channel fill that accumulated rapidly within the lower reaches of a bayhead delta. The diverse biota found in this fossil Lagerstätte includes 14 individual feather specimens, the largest collection known from the Mesozoic of North America. Occurring separately throughout nearly the entire thickness of the clay lens and with a range of sizes and morphologies, the feathers most likely represent a number of theropod species. Based on known taxa in the region, the largest specimen (16.5 cm) may be a rectrix (tail feather) from a dromaeosaurid dinosaur or from a hesperornithid. Smaller feathers may have belonged to a range of shore birds. The best-preserved specimens were found in the finest grained intervals. SEM examination reveals very well preserved microstructure consisting of carbonized rod-shaped bodies ∼1 µm in length, preserved in three dimensions and solid internally. Although identical in size and shape to modern feather-degrading bacilliform bacteria and displaying some bacteria-like features, their alignment along the axis of feather structures indicates that they are more likely the fossil remains of melanosomes, melanin bodies used for color production during life. No three-dimensional arrays or patterned differences of morphotypes have been seen thus far; almost all elements are elongate (apparently eumelanin). Inferred colors for four of the feathers, based on differences in melanosome morphologies, range from gray and brownish gray to black. Whereas the majority of feather-bearing deposits represent inland lakes, the estuarine setting adds a view of coastal feathered theropods preserved in detail by rapid deposition of fine-grained sediment.

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