Pterosaurs May Have Had Vibrant Feathers Like Modern Birds

Researchers say different colors on the flying reptiles were a possible means of communication, and may indicate a common ancestor with dinosaurs

An image of a fossilized head crest of a pterosaur
The fossilized head crest of a pterosaur with evidence of feathers. Cincotta, A. et al. Nature (2022)

Paleontologists studying a well-preserved head crest belonging to a species of pterosaurs say the flying reptile may have sported colorful feathers 113 million years ago, reports Peter Dockrill for Science Alert. The soft tissue specimen preserved on slabs of ancient limestone in Brazil may demonstrate that the winged reptiles had the plumage earlier than previously thought, and could shed light on the evolutionary history of feathers.

Previous research has found that some dinosaurs sported feathers, and other scientists have found pycnofibers or fur-like structures that may become feathers in some pterosaur specimens. However, it was unknown if pterosaurs had actual feathers, and it is a hotly debated topic. The new fossil discovery, detailed in a Nature paper this week, could shed some light on the debate. Two types of feathers rimmed the preserved crest of a Tupandactylus imperator, the species of pterosaur examined. The crest had whisker-like single strand filaments and branched feather-like structures not previously seen in pterosaurs, per Science Alert. Like modern birds, the branched feathers had a central shaft with barbs or branches, reports James Ashworth. 

“We didn’t expect to see this at all. 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,” says Aude Cincotta, a study researcher and paleobiology expert from the University College Cork (UCC), to the Independent’s Nina Massey.

Further analysis of the fossil found that the feathers on the pterosaur may have been inherited from an ancestor common to both dinosaurs and pterosaurs.

When the specimen was analyzed in more detail, researchers using high-resolution electron microscopy found preserved melanosomes—pigment holding organelles responsible for color. The melanosomes found in the branched feathers and cranial tissue were different shapes, suggesting that the flying reptile had a range of hues, Science Alert reports. The melanosomes found in the pterosaur’s skin were different from the feather-like filaments in the skull, implying that they were different colors, reports Riley Black for Scientific American.

“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,” Maria McNamara, one of the study authors and paleobiologist at UCC, says to the Independent.

The team suspects that the colorful feathers may be linked to social signaling. They may have communicated to other pterosaurs a reptile’s health, age, sex and readiness to mate, per Scientific American