Studies have revealed the secrets of the evolution of pterosaur feather color

Artistic restoration of the Emperor’s ancient pterosaur Image by Bob Nicholls

Scientists have found that some of the feathers of some pterosaurs have a variety of pigments that can be used for temperature regulation and display. These findings explain the early evolutionary history of feathers. The study was published In Nature on April 20.

It is already known that pterosaurs had furry fur, made up of hairy fibers called “dense fibers,” but whether these structures were truly feathered is debatable.

Maria McNamara, Aude Cincotta and colleagues at Cork University in Ireland analyzed part of the skull of Emperor Archaic Pterosaurus, a type of Pterosaur from Brazil’s Early Cretaceous (about 113 million years ago). Two types of feathers were observed on the crown: a smaller, unbranched monofibrous filament, and a larger, branched structure that resembled the feathers of modern birds.

Pterodactyl melanoid body. LM picture taken for soft tissue of MCT.R.1884, a-c from monofilament elongated melanoid d-f oval melanoid from branch feathers g-i oval melanoid body from soft tissue crest, scale 2 μm picture from the paper

Since the soft tissues are well preserved, the research team was able to examine the fine structures (melanins) that produce the pigments. The authors identified different types of melanoids in both skin and feathers, a feature that was previously thought to be present only in theropod dinosaurs and extant birds. This suggests that these melanoid bodies gave color to the feathers, as in birds today.

Taken together, these findings suggest that these feathers may not have been able to be used for flight, but could be used as a form of visual communication, and that the genetic mechanisms that supported this ability were already present in reptiles that differentiated early between mid- and late Triassic (about 247 million to 201 million years ago). (Source: China Science Daily Feng Lifei)

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