Artists impressions of Tupandactylus imperator

Tupandactylus imperator may have possessed feathers with different structures and colours. Image adapted from © Julio Lacerda and Bob Nicholls

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Pterosaurs may have had coloured feathers similar to birds

Pterosaurs may have brightened the Mesozoic skies with colourful patterned feathers. 

Though it is still hotly debated, researchers studying a well-preserved specimen claim to show once and for all that the flying reptiles had feathers similar to those of modern birds. 

The world's first flying vertebrates may also have been some of the biggest show-offs.

While it is known that some dinosaurs were covered in feathers, whether their flying relatives were similar is still uncertain. While fur-like structures known as pycnofibres have been interpreted as becoming feathers in some pterosaurs, other scientists suggest that the way they have been preserved result in their feather-like appearance.

A team of international scientists studying soft tissue preserved in a specimen of the Brazilian pterosaur Tupandactylus imperator now believe they have discovered less ambiguous evidence of feathers in these flying reptiles.

Possessing structures that could have allowed them to be coloured, these pterosaurs may have used display behaviours to show off to mates and rivals. In addition, the researchers suggest that this fossil shows the origin of feathers came in an ancestor of both dinosaurs and pterosaurs, before being further developed by some species and lost in others.

Co-author Prof Maria McNamara says, 'In birds today, feather colour is strongly linked to melanosome shape. Since the pterosaur feather types had different melanosome shapes, these animals must have had the genetic machinery to control the colours of their feathers. 

'This feature is essential for colour patterning and shows that coloration was a critical feature of even the very earliest feathers.'

The findings of the scientists were published in Nature

The London Archaeopteryx, displaying feather imprints in rock

The discovery of Archaeopteryx was one of the key steps in our understanding of the evolution of feathers in dinosaurs. Image © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London, All Rights Reserved.

How did feathers evolve?

The first feathers are believed to have evolved at some point in the Early Triassic, when life was recovering from the worst extinction of all time.

The time after the Permian-Triassic mass extinction was one of rapid diversification, as the survivors evolved into many different forms to fill the vast array of lifestyles left empty by less fortunate species being wiped out.

The development of feathers is believed to have evolved from a need to keep warm. Changes in posture, bone structure and lifestyle have been taken as evidence that the ancestors of birds and dinosaurs became endothermic, or warm-blooded, during the Late Permian and Early Triassic.

Being warm-blooded requires an animal to maintain a core body temperature, with animals developing insulation in the form of hairs or feathers to help with this. What were originally thickened skin patches became follicles, and got increasingly complex over time.

In birds and some dinosaurs, these structures became more developed, with barbs and their barbules branching from a central stem known as a rachis. These feathers could then have been used for signalling and assistance in climbing slopes, which later led to the ability to glide and fly.

While all birds have true feathers only their closest dinosaur relatives, the coelosaurs, are thought to have had them. Other dinosaurs, such as Psittacosaurus, had similar structures but these are examples of convergent evolution, not true feathers.

Feathered dinosaurs are now almost universally accepted. But the consensus on feathered pterosaurs is not so clear cut. 

Scanning electron micrographs of melanosomes in the soft tissues of Tupandactylus imperator

The pterosaur melanosomes have different shapes in different tissues, suggesting they may have had different colours in life. Image © Cincotta et al., Nature 2022.

Did pterosaurs have feathers?

Pterosaurs are among the closest relatives of the dinosaurs, diverging from them over 200 million years ago, and are the first known vertebrates to achieve powered flight.

Specimens with intact soft tissue sometimes contain pycnofibres, which are hair-like structures that have been suggested as forming a fur-like covering. Some pycnofibres appear to be branched, suggesting that these pterosaurs could be midway in the development of feathers, but this has been disputed.

Using a well-preserved T. imperator specimen dating back over 110 million years, the researchers in the current study hoped to add more evidence to this debate. This pterosaur species is already notable for its large crest, with this specimen preserving parts of the soft tissue.

Their investigation revealed that the base of the crest was rimmed by feather, including hair-like feathers and branched varieties. The latter feathers appear to have a central rachis with barbs emerging from it, similar to modern birds, but without the barbules.

Lead author Dr Aude Cincotta says, 'We didn't expect to see this at all. 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.'

Examining the feathers and tissue under a microscope, the scientists also found that they contained melanosomes of different shapes. While melanosomes have previously been found in pterosaurs, they have all been uniform in each specimen, suggesting each individual was all the same colour.

This T. imperator specimen had differently shaped melanosomes in each feather type, making it likely they were different colours. This makes it possible the feathers were used for display, something modern birds make extensive use of.

While the research cannot completely rule out that the structures are not feathers, but instead an entirely new type of pterosaur-specific structure, it adds further evidence that the history of the structures goes back further than previously thought.