Fossils are a key source of data on the evolution of feather structure and function through deep time, but their ability to resolve macroevolutionary questions is compromised by an incomplete understanding of their taphonomy. Critically, the relative preservation potential of two key feather components, melanosomes and keratinous tissue, is not fully resolved. Recent studies suggesting that melanosomes are preferentially preserved conflict with observations that melanosomes preserve in fossil feathers as external moulds in an organic matrix. To date, there is no model to explain the latter mode of melanosome preservation. We addressed these issues by degrading feathers in systematic taphonomic experiments incorporating decay, maturation and oxidation in isolation and combination. Our results reveal that the production of mouldic melanosomes requires interactions with an oxidant and is most likely to occur prior to substantial maturation. This constrains the taphonomic conditions under which melanosomes are likely to be fossilized. Critically, our experiments also confirm that keratinous feather structures have a higher preservation potential than melanosomes under a range of diagenetic conditions, supporting hitherto controversial hypotheses that fossil feathers can retain degraded keratinous structures.Acknowledgements
The research was funded by European Research Council Starting Grant 2014‐ERC‐StG‐637691‐ANICOLEVO awarded to MEM. We thank Giliane Odin, Suzanne Crotty, Vince Lodge and Joe Tobin for assistance with SEM and TEM and Jack Connell and Liam Hayes for supplying feathers. Johan Lindgren and an anonymous referee are thanked for useful comments.