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Breakthrough from scientists in Cork shows flying reptiles had feathers over 200 million years ago

The discovery has been hailed as shifting our knowledge concerning the origin of feathers.

Reconstruction of the studied Daohugou pterosaur
Reconstruction of the studied Daohugou pterosaur
Image: Yang Zhang

UNIVERSITY COLLEGE CORK researchers have made a discovery that has shifted our knowledge about the origin of feathers back about 70 million years.

Flying reptiles called pterosaurs – who lived alongside dinosaurs from 230 to 66 million years ago – had at least four types of feathers according to a new study led by UCC’s Dr Maria McNamara and scientists from China’s Nanjing University.

Pterosaurs predate birds but it had long been thought that they had a furry covering that was thought to be fundamentally different to the feathers of dinosaurs and birds.

In the study published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution, however, the researchers say that these “pycnofibres” are indeed similar to the feathers of dinosaurs.

Dr McNamara said: “Some critics have suggested that there is only one simple hair-like type of pycnofibre, but our studies show different structures that we also see in dinosaurs – real feathers.

We focused on areas where the feathers did not overlap and where we could see their structure more clearly. They even show fine details of pigment granules, which may have given the fluffy feathers a ginger colour.

She said that this discovery has “amazing implications for our understanding of the origin of feathers”, as well as a major time of revolution. 

The ancestors of mammals and dinosaurs were beginning to walk up right about 250 million years ago as life was beginning to recover from the mass extinction during the end-Permian period. 

Dr McNamara explained that these creatures would have developed feathers to help insulate them.

The researchers said: “The hunt for feathers in fossils is heating up and deciphering their functions in such early animals forms a critical part of the puzzle.

It could rewrite our understanding of a major revolution in life on Earth during the Triassic, and our understanding of the genomic regulation of feathers, scales, and hairs in the skin.  

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Sean Murray

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