A multinational team of paleontologists has unearthed remarkable new evidence that pterosaurs, the flying ancestors of dinosaurs, were able to change the color of their feathers using melanin pigments.
The research, which was published today (April 20, 2022) in the journal Nature, was led by University College Cork (UCC) paleontologists Dr. Aude Cincotta and Prof. Maria McNamara, as well as Dr. Pascal Godefroit from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, and included an international team of scientists from Brazil and Belgium.
The new research is based on the analysis of a fresh 115 million-year-old fossilized skull crest of the pterosaur Tupandactylus imperator found in north-eastern Brazil. From 230 to 66 million years ago, pterosaurs coexisted with dinosaurs.
This pterosaur is well-known for its unusually large head crest. The researchers discovered a fuzzy ring of feathers at the bottom of the crest, with short, wiry hair-like feathers and fluffy branching feathers.
“We didn’t expect to see this,” Dr. Cincotta remarked. Paleontologists have debated whether pterosaurs possessed feathers for decades. The feathers in our species put an end to that argument because they are obviously branched all the way down their length, just like birds today. “
The feathers were then examined under high-powered electron microscopes, where the researchers discovered retained melanosomes – granules containing the pigment melanin. Surprisingly, the current research reveals that the melanosomes in different feather kinds have varied geometries.
“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 that coloration was a critical feature of even the very earliest feathers.”said Prof. McNamara.
“Today, feather color is significantly linked to melanosome morphology in birds,” Prof. McNamara added. Because the diverse pterosaur feather types had different melanosome forms, these animals must have had the genetic machinery to regulate the colors of their feathers. This characteristic is necessary for color patterning and demonstrates that coloration was an important element of even the oldest feathers. “
The extraordinary specimen has been returned to Brazil thanks to the collaborative efforts of Belgian and Brazilian experts and officials, as well as a private contributor. It is critical that scientifically significant fossils like this are returned to their countries of origin and safely safeguarded for posterity, Dr. Godefroit added. “These fossils can then be made available to scientists for further research, and future generations of scientists can be inspired through public exhibitions that honor our natural history.”