Flying dinosaur cousins could change colors of their feathers, study says

Flying dinosaur cousins could change colors of their feathers, study says

Pterosaurs, the flying cousins of dinosaurs, were able to control the color of their feathers using melanin pigments, according to new research. Photo by Bob Nichols/Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

Pterosaurs — the flying relatives of dinosaurs — could control the color of their plumage, researchers have discovered.

Pterosaurs lived alongside dinosaurs, 230 million to 66 million years ago.

The investigators analyzed a 115-million-year-old fossilized head crest of a pterosaur called Tupandactylus imperator found in northeastern Brazil.

The bottom of the crest had a fuzzy boundary of short wiry hair-like feathers and fluffy branched feathers, according to the study authors.

“We didn’t expect to see this at all,” said study co-leader Aude Cincotta, of University College Cork in Ireland.

“For decades paleontologists 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,” Cincotta explained in a university news release.

Using powerful electron microscopes to study the feathers, the researchers detected preserved melanosomes — granules of the pigment melanin — and found that melanosomes in different feather types on the pterosaur have different shapes.

“In birds today, feather color is strongly linked to melanosome shape,” study co-leader Maria McNamara, also of University College Cork, said.

“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,” McNamara said in the release.

The researchers worked with experts from Belgium and Brazil on the fossil, which has now been returned to Brazil.

The paper was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

More information

There’s more on pterosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History.

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