After years of being everyone’s favorite flying reptiles with leathery or membrane-covered wings and bodies, pterosaurs are suddenly becoming more like the creatures that replaced them – birds. First came the discovery that the “wing lizards" (from the Greek pteron and sauros) had hair-like filaments known as pycnofibers on their heads and torsos. Now comes new evidence that pterosaurs had both short wiry hair-like feathers and fluffy branched feathers like modern birds … with one species actually being able to control the color of their feathers using melanin pigments. This may not change everything, but it definitely changes a few dinosaur movies.
“In their very earliest forms, feathers were colored … presumably for signaling.”
Paleobiologist Maria McNamara of University College Cork is the lead author of “Pterosaur melanosomes support signaling functions for early feathers,” a study published this week in the journal Nature. McNamara tells Science magazine she has long believed pterosaurs had feathers but, because feather fossils almost never survive, had little evidence. A few years ago in Brussels, she was invited to view a private collector’s partial skull of a Tupandactylus imperator, a Brazilian pterosaur known for an enormous sail-like crest on its head. When she was finally able to study it, McNamara and her colleagues found the pterosaur had two types of feathers, including branched feathers similar to modern birds. If confirmed, this pushes the emergence of feathers back 100 million years to 250 million years ago -- a huge difference in timeframes. And that wasn’t the big news.
As explained in an NBC News report, the researchers used a high-powered electron microscope to examine the feathers and found preserved melanosomes (organelles or cellular organs found in animal cells which synthesize, store and transport melanin) – a first for a pterosaur and an indicator that they were genetically linked to birds and that the feathers were multicolored. Ironically, the feathers were too small to play a part in flying – instead, they regulated body and did something completely unexpected.
“We think we have really good evidence here that visual communication was an important driving factor in feather evolution.”
The research indicates that some pterosaurs used their colored crests in courtship or as a means of intimidating other lesser-endowed “wing lizards.” If that’s not impressive enough, the presence of more than one type of melanosome in their feathers, indicating they could genetically control their colors – creating patterns designed for both purposes. And all of this happened long before the current accepted timeframe for the initial emergence of feathers to the Jurassic period 250 million years ago.
Not all paleontologists agree with McNamara’s conclusions on pterosaur feathers. However, to study the partial skull of a Tupandactylus imperator she analyzed, they will have to trudge to Brazil – the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences repatriated the fossil to Brazil, where it will be displayed at the Earth Sciences Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Originally found in the Araripe Basin in northeastern Brazil, it is hoped more will be discovered there, and the repatriation will convince more collectors to return poached and stolen fossils to their countries of origin.
Multicolored pterosaurs preening for potential mates – this may inspire a whole new kind of Jurassic Park movie.