This ancient hairy dragon may have sported primitive feathers


first_imgLuckily, the specimens, now stored at Nanjing University and the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences’s Institute of Geology in Beijing, had not been coated with the protective lacquer applied to many fossils that sometimes obscures details and prevents chemical analysis. Careful examination under a microscope showed they sported four types of filaments: a hollow, slightly curved hairlike filament—the standard pycnofiber—that covered most of the pterosaurs’ bodies; bushy tipped filaments on the neck, base of the tail, and parts of the legs; a differently shaped filament with bushy fibers extending from the middle on the head; and, finally, on the wing membranes of both animals, filaments that seemed to be tufts of branched filaments. “The correct term for a branching thing that grows out of the follicle of the skin is a feather,” Benton says.These feathers, like down on modern birds, might have helped the warm-blooded animals regulate their temperature, the team reports today in Nature Ecology & Evolution. They also could have played a role in flight aerodynamics, coloration, and may have enhanced the animals’ sense of touch, the authors say. An artist’s rendering of the pterosaur based on the new study looks like a fluffy baby dragon—or perhaps a relative of Buckbeak, the hippogriff from the Harry Potter movies.Pterosaurs are only distantly related to dinosaurs and birds, the other animals known to have had feathers. If the newly found structures really are a type of feather, Jiang says, that means the common ancestor of birds and pterosaurs may have had them, which would move the origin of feathers back from 175 million years ago to roughly 250 million years ago. It would also suggest that a broad variety of dinosaurs—including plant eaters not directly related to modern birds—might have also had featherlike structures on their skin. (Some researchers have reported featherlike filaments on these dinosaurs, but those claims are vigorously debated.)But David Unwin, a paleontologist at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom, thinks the branched filaments are more likely to be structural fibers called actinofibrils that were part of pterosaurs’ wing membrane. “Whenever we have soft tissue in pterosaurs, wing fibers are always there,” he says. The branches, he says, could be decaying wing fibers that have started to unwind and fray.Jiang, Benton, and their colleagues say detailed studies of the filaments support their theory. Using a scanning electron microscope, x-ray spectroscopy, and infrared spectroscopy, they discovered the structures were likely made of keratin—the protein that forms hair and feathers—and they found structures that looked like melanosomes, organelles that contain melanin and are also typically found in hair and feathers. (The melanosomes’ chemical composition suggests the fibers were likely brown or red, not black.) But actinofibrils could also have contained keratin and melanosomes, Unwin says.From a genetic perspective, early evolution of primitive feathers isn’t so far-fetched, Benton says. The genes that control the growth of hair, feathers—and scales—are very similar, he notes. “A chicken has feathers and scales on its legs, and a rat has scales on its tail.”Although skeptical about the group’s interpretation, Unwin says the study will help scientists get closer to understanding pterosaur skin. “These are two really great specimens,” he says. “And the imaging studies they did were really, really good. It’s very helpful to have the data.” By Gretchen VogelDec. 17, 2018 , 10:45 AM Country * Afghanistan Aland Islands Albania Algeria Andorra Angola Anguilla Antarctica Antigua and Barbuda Argentina Armenia Aruba Australia Austria Azerbaijan Bahamas Bahrain Bangladesh Barbados Belarus Belgium Belize Benin Bermuda Bhutan Bolivia, Plurinational State of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba Bosnia and Herzegovina Botswana Bouvet Island Brazil British Indian Ocean Territory Brunei Darussalam Bulgaria Burkina Faso Burundi Cambodia Cameroon Canada Cape Verde Cayman Islands Central African Republic Chad Chile China Christmas Island Cocos (Keeling) Islands Colombia Comoros Congo Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Cook Islands Costa Rica Cote d’Ivoire Croatia Cuba Curaçao Cyprus Czech Republic Denmark Djibouti Dominica Dominican Republic Ecuador Egypt El Salvador Equatorial Guinea Eritrea Estonia Ethiopia Falkland Islands (Malvinas) Faroe Islands Fiji Finland France French Guiana French Polynesia French Southern Territories Gabon Gambia Georgia Germany Ghana Gibraltar Greece Greenland Grenada Guadeloupe Guatemala Guernsey Guinea Guinea-Bissau Guyana Haiti Heard Island and McDonald Islands Holy See (Vatican City State) Honduras Hungary Iceland India Indonesia Iran, Islamic Republic of Iraq Ireland Isle of Man Israel Italy Jamaica Japan Jersey Jordan Kazakhstan Kenya Kiribati Korea, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Republic of Kuwait Kyrgyzstan Lao People’s Democratic Republic Latvia Lebanon Lesotho Liberia Libyan Arab Jamahiriya Liechtenstein Lithuania Luxembourg Macao Macedonia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Madagascar Malawi Malaysia Maldives Mali Malta Martinique Mauritania Mauritius Mayotte Mexico Moldova, Republic of Monaco Mongolia Montenegro Montserrat Morocco Mozambique Myanmar Namibia Nauru Nepal Netherlands New Caledonia New Zealand Nicaragua Niger Nigeria Niue Norfolk Island Norway Oman Pakistan Palestine Panama Papua New Guinea Paraguay Peru Philippines Pitcairn Poland Portugal Qatar Reunion Romania Russian Federation Rwanda Saint Barthélemy Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Saint Kitts and Nevis Saint Lucia Saint Martin (French part) Saint Pierre and Miquelon Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Samoa San Marino Sao Tome and Principe Saudi Arabia Senegal Serbia Seychelles Sierra Leone Singapore Sint Maarten (Dutch part) Slovakia Slovenia Solomon Islands Somalia South Africa South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands South Sudan Spain Sri Lanka Sudan Suriname Svalbard and Jan Mayen Swaziland Sweden Switzerland Syrian Arab Republic Taiwan Tajikistan Tanzania, United Republic of Thailand Timor-Leste Togo Tokelau Tonga Trinidad and Tobago Tunisia Turkey Turkmenistan Turks and Caicos Islands Tuvalu Uganda Ukraine United Arab Emirates United Kingdom United States Uruguay Uzbekistan Vanuatu Venezuela, Bolivarian Republic of Vietnam Virgin Islands, British Wallis and Futuna Western Sahara Yemen Zambia Zimbabwe This ancient ‘hairy dragon’ may have sported primitive feathers Yuan Zhang/Nature Ecology & Evolution This pigeon-size pterosaur, which lived roughly 160 million years ago, had branched filaments on its skin that resemble feathers.center_img Click to view the privacy policy. Required fields are indicated by an asterisk (*) Email Sign up for our daily newsletter Get more great content like this delivered right to you! Country Ptersoaurs—flying reptiles, some as big as giraffes—were the first vertebrates to develop powered flight, more than 200 million years ago. Scientists have long known that these distant cousins of dinosaurs had fuzzy, furlike fibers on their skin. Now, a new study suggests those fibers might have been a kind of primitive feather. That would upend the assumption that certain dinosaurs—including modern birds—were the only ones to develop feathers.Scientists have known since the 1800s that pterosaurs were covered in short hairlike filaments called pycnofibres, which probably formed a fuzz or furlike covering. But no one knows exactly what these fibers looked like when the animal was alive.Michael Benton, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, paleontologist Baoyu Jiang of Nanjing University in China, and their colleagues examined fossils of two pigeon-size pterosaurs found at the Yanliao Biota in northeastern China. The site is known for its exquisitely preserved fossils from between 165 million and 160 million years ago, including some of the earliest birds. The two pterosaurs caught the researchers’ attention because they were “exceptionally hairy,” Benton says, with unusually well-preserved pycnofibers.last_img

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