Irish-led study finds flying dinosaur cousins had colour-changing feathers

20 Apr 2022

An artist’s reconstruction of the feathered pterosaur Tupandactylus, showing the feather types along the bottom of the head crest. Image: Bob Nicholls

Pterosaurs – the flying cousins of dinosaurs – could likely change the colour of their feathers, according to a new study led by UCC researchers.

For decades, palaeontologists have debated whether pterosaurs had feathers.

Now, an international team led by Irish researchers has discovered that the flying relatives 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 team discovered 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 University College Cork (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

In a study, published today (20 April) in the journal Nature, the team also found preserved melanosomes in the feathers, or melanin-containing organelles that are responsible for the pigmentation of hair and skin.

Usually, the shape of melanosomes decides the colour of a feather in modern birds. However, the research team found that different pterosaur 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”.

In an interview with last month, 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. 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 pterosaur 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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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic