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Pterosaurs could change the color of their feathers

The discovery is based on analysis of a 115 million year-old fossilized headcrest dug up in north-eastern Brazil.

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By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

The world's first flying animals could change the color of their feathers… just like birds today, according to new research.

Pterosaurs controlled plumage with the natural skin pigment melanin. They did it to attract mates - or keep cool.

The discovery is based on analysis of a 115 million year-old fossilized headcrest dug up in north-eastern Brazil.

It belonged to a creature named Tupandactylus imperator which had a wingspan of over 16 feet - as big as a light plane.

The bizarre-looking beast had a huge head, long neck, short body, large toothless jaws - and a sail like crown supported two slender mast-like bony rods.

At the bottom was a fuzzy rim of feathers - some short and wiry and others fluffy, say an international team.

It extends the origins of feathers back to long before birds evolved - shedding fresh light on their role.

Lead author Dr. Aude Cincotta, of University College Cork, said: "We didn't expect to see this at all. For decades paleontologists have argued about whether pterosaurs had feathers.

"The feathers in our specimen close off that debate for good as they are very clearly branched all the way along their length - just like birds today."

Scanning with high-powered electron microscopes identified preserved granules of melanin.

Unexpectedly, the study in Nature shows the fragments, known as melanosomes, had different shapes depending on the type of feather.

Co-lead author Professor Maria McNamara, also from Cork, said: "In birds today, feather color is strongly linked to melanosome shape.

"Since the pterosaur feather types had different melanosome shapes, these animals must have had the genetic machinery to control the colors of their feathers.

"This feature is essential for color patterning and shows coloration was a critical feature of even the very earliest feathers."

Pterosaurs were reptiles that soared above the heads of the dinosaurs 230 to 66 million years ago. Despite flying, they are only distantly related to birds.

Varying the pigmentation of feathers would have been useful for heat insulation - and display, explained Prof McNamara.

Birds today undergo moulting - a natural process which also allows them to shed old, dull feathers and replace them with more vibrant ones.

Tupandactylus lived by a lake and was probably omnivorous - feasting on a variety of foods ranging form fish to fruit, seeds and small vertebrates.

Working with a private donor, the remarkable specimen has been now been repatriated to Brazil.

Co-lead author Dr. Pascal Godefroit, of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, said: "It is so important scientifically important fossils such as this are returned to their countries of origin and safely conserved for posterity.

"These fossils can then be made available to scientists for further study and can inspire future generations of scientists through public exhibitions that celebrate our natural heritage."

Prof Mike Benton, of Bristol University who was not involved in the study, said it proves once and for all pterosaurs had feathers - an idea that had been controversial.

He said: "The various species of Tupandactylus and their relatives had differently shaped crests - structures built from skin stretched over the bony spars - each bearing irregular, large spots of colour.

"These crests are generally interpreted to have been for signaling between individuals.
Perhaps they were used in pre-mating rituals, just as certain birds use colorful tail fans, wings and head crests to attract mates.

"Communication was also suggested as the function of the colorfully patterned feathers on the tails, wings and heads of some dinosaurs.

"Modern birds are renowned for the diversity and complexity of their colourful displays, and for the role of these aspects of sexual selection in bird evolution.

"The same might be true for a wide array of extinct animals - including dinosaurs and pterosaurs."

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