Irish-led study discovers flying dinosaurs had colour-changing feathersVish Gainon April 20, 2022 at 15:00 Silicon RepublicSilicon Republic

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For decades, palaeontologists have debated whether pterosaurs – the dinosaurs with wings – had feathers.

Now, an international team led by Irish researchers has put the debate to rest after discovering that the flying cousins of dinosaurs did, indeed, have feathers – ones that could even change colour.

Based on analyses carried out on a 115m year old fossilised head-crest of a pterosaur called Tupandactylus imperator from Brazil, the study describes the team’s discovery of a fuzzy rim of fluffy and wiry feathers at the bottom of the crest.

“We didn’t expect to see this at all”, said Dr Aude Cincotta, one of the two UCC palaeontologists involved in the study.

“For decades palaeontologists 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.”

Coloured feathers

The study, published today (20 April) in the journal Nature, also found specimen of preserved melanosomes, or granules of the pigment melanin, in the feathers.

Usually, the shape of the melanosomes decides the colour of the feather, even in modern birds. However, the team also found that different feathers had differently-shaped melanosomes, pointing to the possibility that pterosaurs could change the colour of their feathers.

“In birds today, feather colour is strongly linked to melanosome shape,” explained Prof Maria McNamara, the other UCC-based palaeontologist involved in the study. “Since the pterosaur feather types had different melanosome shapes, these animals must have had the genetic machinery to control the colours of their feathers.”

McNamara, who has won multiple research grants for her work investigating the evolution of feathers and melanin in fossil animals, added that this feature was essential for colour patterning and “shows that coloration was a critical feature of even the very earliest feathers”.

Last month, in an interview with SiliconRepublic.com, McNamara described her most recent project which will target chemical analyses of different fossils under a rigorous programme of fossilisation experiments.

These experiments will simulate decay and burial to generate the first comprehensive models for preservation of the biomolecules keratin, melanin and collagen in fossil soft tissues through deep time.

Back home

Pterosaurs lived alongside terrestrial dinosaurs between 230m to 60m years ago. They are sometimes incorrectly identified as the ancestors of modern birds, who evolved from therapod dinosaurs. Pterosaur fossils have been discovered all over the world, most recently in Chile’s Atacama Desert – where scientists found well-preserved bones of the creatures in a cluster.

With the study now concluded, the head-crest specimen has been repatriated to Brazil, where it was first found.

“It is so important that scientifically important fossils such as this are returned to their countries of origin and safely conserved for posterity,” said Dr Pascal Godefroit of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, who co-led the study.

“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.”

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