Now we know. Not only did these flying reptiles have feathers, but they could actually control the color of those feathers at the cellular level to create multicolored plumage. in a manner similar to modern birds, new research has revealed.
The researchers analyzed the fossilized crest of Tupandactylus imperator, a pterosaur that lived 115 million years ago in Brazil. Upon closer inspection, paleontologists realized that the bottom of this huge headrest was lined with two types of feathers: the short, stiff feathers that looked more like hair, and the fluffier feathers that branched out like bird feathers.
“We didn’t expect to see this at all,” said Aude Cincotta, the study’s lead author, paleontologist and postdoctoral researcher. at University College Cork in Ireland, in a statement.
“For decades, paleontologists argued over whether pterosaurs had feathers,” Cincotta said. “The feathers of our specimen end this debate for good because they are very clearly branched along their entire length, just like today’s birds.”
The research team studied the feathers under an electron microscope and were surprised to find preserved melanosomes, or melanin granules. These granules had different shapes, depending on the types of feathers they were associated with on the pterosaur fossil. Uneven color was also found in the preserved soft tissue.
“In birds today, feather color is strongly linked to the shape of the melanosome,” said study co-author Maria McNamara, a professor of paleontology in the School of Biological Sciences, Land and Environment from University College Cork, in a statement.
“Since pterosaur feather types had different forms of melanosomes, these animals must have had the genetic machinery to control the colors of their feathers. This feature is essential for color patterning and shows that coloration was an essential feature even from the very first feathers.”
Previously, scientists understood that pterosaurs had a kind of whisker-like fluffy cover to help them stay isolated. The new research confirms that this down was actually made from different types of feathers. These feathers and the surrounding skin had different colors, such as black, brown, ginger, gray, and other tones associated with the different melanin granules.
“This strongly suggests that pterosaur feathers had different colors,” McNamara said. “The presence of this feature in dinosaurs (including birds) and pterosaurs indicates shared ancestry, where this feature derives from a common ancestor who lived in the Early Triassic (250 million years ago). coloration was therefore probably an important driving force in the evolution of feathers even in the earliest days of their evolutionary history.”
Some of these colors helped the pterosaurs share visual cues with each other, but the team isn’t quite sure what those cues would have meant.
“We would need to know the exact hue and pattern to solve this problem,” McNamara said. “Unfortunately, we can’t do either at this time, with the current data. We need to look at melanosomes in feathers across the body to determine if they were patterned, and we need to determine if traces of non-melanin pigments can be detected.”
Tupandactylus was an odd-looking creature, with a wingspan of 16 feet (5 meters) and an enormous (albeit light) head with toothless jaws. Its giant crest had irregular flowers in color.
“Perhaps they were used in pre-mating rituals, just as some birds use colorful tail fans, wings and head crests to attract mates,” wrote paleontology professor Michael Benton. vertebrates at the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences, in a News and Views article published with the study. Benton was not involved in the research.
“Modern birds are renowned for the diversity and complexity of their colorful displays, and for the role of these aspects of sexual selection in the evolution of birds, and the same could be true for a wide range of extinct animals. , including dinosaurs and pterosaurs,” Benton said. wrote.
This discovery could lead to a better understanding of pterosaurs, which first appeared around 230 million years ago and died out with the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.
“This discovery opens opportunities to explore new aspects of pterosaur behavior and to revisit previously described specimens to better understand feather structure and functional evolution,” McNamara said.
The fossil, originally recovered in northeast Brazil, was repatriated to its country of origin thanks to the efforts of scientists and a private donor.
“It is so important that scientifically important fossils like this be returned to their country of origin and kept safe for posterity,” said study co-author Pascal Godefroit, a paleontologist at the Institute. of Natural Sciences of Belgium, in a press release. “These fossils can then be made available to scientists for further study and can inspire future generations of scientists through public exhibits that celebrate our natural heritage.”
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