Pterosaurs had colored feathers

Until recently, it was believed that dinosaurs “invented” feathers, which later gave rise to birds. These were small predatory dinosaurs, and, most likely, they first needed feathers for heating, well, or for mating rituals; and then, in the course of evolution, it turned out that feathers help to lean on the air if you want to jump from the ground to a tree branch or jump from tree to tree. A typical example here is Archeopteryx, a winged and feathered dinosaur with many bird features: a few years ago we wrote that he mastered flapping flight, although he most likely could not flap his wings for a long time.

But pterosaurs also lived alongside dinosaurs. It is wrong to call them flying dinosaurs: this is another group of ancient reptiles, related to dinosaurs by a fairly distant relationship. And if among ordinary dinosaurs only a few were able to master the air (and turn into birds), then pterosaurs flew all. However, they flew on leathery wings, and they did not seem to have any feathers. At best, they had hair-like threads – the so-called pycnofibres.

In 2018, employees of the University of Bristol, Nanjing University, together with colleagues from other scientific centers in China, Ireland and the United States, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution an article that described the feathers of pterosaurs – not dinosaurs, but pterosaurs. It turned out that on some pterosaur remains, not just threads remained, but threads with branches: they had beards extending from the central rod, like those of bird feathers. Significantly, dinosaurs had similar structures, both those that gave rise to birds and those that were aloof from their “avian” relatives.

True, not everyone was convinced by these results: some experts said that the discovered feathers were only traces of the destruction of the remains of pterosaurs and deformations of the surrounding rock; others said that we see so far only some kind of peculiar hair-like structures and their “featheriness” still needs to be proven.

And these days in Nature an article was published in which partly the same authors as in the first, together with the staff of the University of Ghent, University College Cork and the University of Namur describe pterosaur feathers Tupandactylus imperator: his wingspan reached five meters, and his head was decorated with a large bone crest. In the hands of the researchers was an extremely well-preserved skull T. imperator 113 Ma in age, in which both ordinary hair-like pycnofibres without branches and feather-like pycnofibres with branches are preserved on the crest. Both were studied using a scanning electron microscope, which once again showed that the feather-like hair-like filaments really look like feathers.

Moreover, they found melanosomes – the so-called intracellular granules, which consist of coloring pigments (mainly melanin) enclosed in a lipid membrane. Melanosomes are found in skin cells, in hair, in feathers, and they can be of different shapes: spherical, oval, strongly elongated, etc. The color they give depends on their shape. In pycnofiber feathers of a pterosaur T. imperator melanosomes looked different, which suggests that pterosaurs were multicolored. However, it is not a fact that they were of some kind of parrot coloring and that they needed a colored outfit for marriage ceremonies, it may well be that their multi-coloredness was reduced to some restrained camouflage shades.

It cannot be said that these new data completely dispelled all skepticism about pterosaurian feathers; to be more convincing, more molecular chemical studies are needed here. But if pycnofibers with processes are recognized as (proto)feathers, then the emergence of feathers in evolution will shift to the Triassic period, when a common ancestor of dinosaurs and pterosaurs lived on earth.

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