Dinosaur dandruff discovery sheds new light on ancient beasts

25 May 2018

Dr Maria McNamara, UCC. Image: John Sheehan

Believe it or not, dinosaurs did indeed have dandruff, and now the discovery of samples by UCC scientists is helping to provide new insight into what their skin was like.

The debate about what dinosaurs actually looked like has raged for decades, given that the vast majority of the traces of dinosaurs exist only in fossilised bone fragments.

Various discoveries, such as those made in amber and even luckier finds elsewhere, have shown that there was a huge diversity in appearance, ranging from a feathered beast to a scaly giant.

Now, a major breakthrough achieved by a team including researchers from University College Cork (UCC) has helped us get up close and personal with a dinosaur’s skin, thanks to an amazing 125m-year-old find.

Almost identical to modern birds

The discovery was not a bone fragment or even a feather, but an actual sample of dinosaur dandruff preserved among the plumage of feathered dinosaurs and early birds, revealing the first evidence of how dinosaurs shed their skin.

UCC’s Dr Maria McNamara and the team published their findings in Nature Communications to reveal the use of powerful electron microscopes to see that, just like human dandruff, fossil dandruff is made of tough cells called corneocytes, which, in living skin, are dry and full of keratin.

“The fossil cells are preserved with incredible detail – right down to the level of nanoscale keratin fibrils,” McNamara said.

“What’s remarkable is that the fossil dandruff is almost identical to that in modern birds; even the spiral twisting of individual fibres is still visible.”

‘A burst of evolution’

Further research has suggested that this modern skin evolved some time in the late Middle Jurassic period, similar in timeframe to the evolution of a number of other skin features.

The samples of dandruff were taken from three feathered dinosaurs including the microraptor, beipiaosaurus and sinornithosaurus, clearly showing that their skin shed in flakes similar to an early species of bird known as a confuciusornis.

This means they also share similar characteristics with modern birds and mammals rather than current reptiles, which shed as a single piece or in several large pieces.

“There was a burst of evolution of feathered dinosaurs and birds at this time, and it’s exciting to see evidence that the skin of early birds and dinosaurs was evolving rapidly in response to bearing feathers,” Dr McNamara added.

It is interesting to note that while modern birds have very fatty corneocytes with loosely packed keratin to allow them to cool down quicker in long-duration flights, dinosaurs did not because they would not have been able to fly.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic