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A scientific controversy: Feathers fly

In the mid-19th century, if you had wanted to have a scientific fight, you could have picked no better subject than palaeontology. Fossils pouring out of the mines, quarries and railway cuttings of the industrial revolution were undermining the biblical accounts of creation and early history, then believed literally true. They thus threatened Christianity.

You might think things would have calmed down by now, but palaeontology clearly still has argumentative genes in its DNA, as the fate of Alison Moyer at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology, in Raleigh, North Carolina, demonstrated. On October 19th Ms Moyer, a graduate student at North Carolina State University, proposed an idea that undermines orthodoxy as much as the 19th-century rockhounds did. The difference is that this orthodoxy is scientific.

Four years ago a group of researchers led by Jakob Vinther of Yale University announced that they had seen grain-like bodies called melanosomes in fossil feathers, and that these bodies were arranged in interesting patterns. Thus encouraged, others followed suit. Suddenly, melanosomes were everywhere. This mattered for two reasons. First, melanosomes are organelles of pigment. That meant that it might be possible to reconstruct what ancient birds looked like. Second, it is now clear that the dinosaurs from which birds evolved also had feathers. Fossil melanosomes mean it might be possible to work out what those dinosaurs looked like, too. A lot is thus at stake. So any suggestion that what the researchers are seeing are not melanosomes is not going to be popular. But that is exactly what Ms Moyer, backed up by her supervisor Mary Schweitzer, is suggesting.

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