These fuzz-covered flying reptiles had catlike whiskers | Science News for Students

These fuzz-covered flying reptiles had catlike whiskers

Delicate fossils reveal a new look for pterosaurs
Feb 4, 2019 — 6:45 am EST

This pterosaur (seen here in an illustration) was covered in different sorts of hairlike fuzz. Their structure is the same as the protofeathers that covered some dinosaurs.

Yang Zhang

Pterosaurs were not dinosaurs. These prehistoric flying reptiles belonged to a family all their own. But scientists now report that pterosaurs (TAIR-oh-sors) and dinosaurs shared one important trait. Both had protofeathers.

The dinosaurs in Jurassic World may be as smooth as any modern-day lizard, but real dinos would have looked much different. Many were covered in protofeathers. These are the forerunners of the feathers found on birds today.

a photo of a pterosaur fossil showing protofeathers
Each of the boxes in this image highlights places on this pterosaur fossil where protofeathers can be seen.
Z. Yang et al/Nature Ecology & Evolution 2018

Paleontologists had long known that pterosaurs were as fuzzy as kittens. In 1831, paleontologist Georg August Goldfuss wrote about a pterosaur with fibers on its body. He likened them to hair. Experts called them pycnofibers [PICK-no-fy-burs] and thought they differed from protofeathers.

Michael Benton is a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in England. He and his colleagues have just examined fossils from two pterosaurs found in the Daohugou region of northern China. Both were small, about the size of a brown bat. They had lived some 165 million years ago, during the Jurassic period.

Fuzz was clearly visible on both fossils. But to learn more, the scientists turned to a scanning electron microscope. Its beams of electrons produce very-high resolution images. These turned up different fuzz types. Chemical analyses revealed that wisps of the fuzz contained microscopic structures related to color. They would have made the pterosaurs reddish brown.  

Different types of fiber-like fluff covered various parts of both pterosaurs. Single filaments covered the head, neck and shoulders, for example. Parts of the arms and tail had brush-like bundles of fuzz. These reptiles even hosted what appear to be whiskers. That could have helped them sense insects and other small prey. These also look just like filaments found on dinosaurs.

Benton and his colleagues described their new findings December 17, 2018 in Nature Ecology & Evolution.  

On the evolutionary path to feathers

Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone is a pterosaur expert who works at the University of Southampton in England. She was not involved in the new study. “Looking at these structures, they really look like protofeathers,” she says. 

The new discovery could change when scientists think feathers first evolved.

Many dinosaurs have been found with protofeathers. The new findings indicate that the fuzz found on many pterosaur fossils is much the same. In fact, it’s structure is the same as dino protofeathers. If both dinosaurs and pterosaurs had protofeathers, the common ancestor of both groups probably did, too. “That would push the origin of protofeathers to well over 200 million years ago,” Benton says. That’s more than 40 million years earlier than previously thought.

Paleontologists will be looking for more fossils preserved with fluff. “What would be more convincing is if we found some early dinosaurs and pterosaurs with feathers, and some more groups of dinosaurs with feathers to support this idea more,” Martin-Silverstone says.

Then, of course, they’ll need to get the moviemakers on board.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

birds     Warm-blooded animals with wings that first showed up during the time of the dinosaurs. Birds are jacketed in feathers and produce young from the eggs they deposit in some sort of nest. Most birds fly, but throughout history there have been the occasional species that don’t.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

dinosaur     A term that means terrible lizard. These ancient reptiles lived from about 250 million years ago to roughly 65 million years ago. All descended from egg-laying reptiles known as archosaurs. Their descendants eventually split into two lines. For many decades, they have been distinguished by their hips. The lizard-hipped line are believed to have led to the saurichians, such as two-footed theropods like T. rex and the lumbering four-footed Apatosaurus (once known as brontosaurus). A second line of so-called bird-hipped, or ornithischian dinosaurs, appears to have led to a widely differing group of animals that included the stegosaurs and duckbilled dinosaurs. But a new 2017 analysis now calls into question that characterization of relatedness based on hip shape.

ecology      A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.

evolution     (v. to evolve) A process by which species undergo changes over time, usually through genetic variation and natural selection. These changes usually result in a new type of organism better suited for its environment than the earlier type. The newer type is not necessarily more “advanced,” just better adapted to the particular conditions in which it developed. Or the term can refer to changes that occur as some natural progression within the non-living world (such as computer chips evolving to smaller devices which operate at an ever faster speed).

fiber     Something whose shape resembles a thread or filament. (in nutrition) Components of many fibrous plant-based foods. These so-called non-digestible fibers tend to come from cellulose, lignin, and pectin — all plant constituents that resist breakdown by the body’s digestive enzymes.

filament     Something with a thin, thread-like shape. For instance, the fragile metal wire that heats up to emit light inside an incandescent light bulb is known as its filament.

fossil     Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils. The process of forming fossils is called fossilization.

insect     A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.

Jurassic     Lasting from about 200 million to 145.5 million years ago, it’s the middle period of the Mesozoic Era. This was a time when dinosaurs were the dominant form of life on land.

lizard     A type of reptile that typically walks on four legs, has a scaly body and a long tapering tail. Unlike most reptiles, lizards also typically have movable eyelids. Examples of lizards include the tuatara, chameleons, Komodo dragon, and Gila monster.

paleontologist     A scientist who specializes in studying fossils, the remains of ancient organisms.

prehistoric     An adjective for something that happened tens of thousands to millions of years ago, periods before people began deliberately recording events.

prey     (n.) Animal species eaten by others. (v.) To attack and eat another species.

pterosaur     Any of various extinct flying reptiles of the order Pterosauria. These animals lived 245 million years ago to 65 million years ago. Although not true dinosaurs, they lived during the reign of dinosaurs. Among members of this order were the pterodactyls of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, which were characterized by wings consisting of a flap of skin supported by the very long fourth digit on each forelimb.

reptile     Cold-blooded vertebrate animals, whose skin is covered with scales or horny plates. Snakes, turtles, lizards and alligators are all reptiles.

trait     A characteristic feature of something. (in genetics) A quality or characteristic that can be inherited.


Journal:​ Z. Yang et al. Pterosaur integumentary structures with complex feather-like branching. Nature Ecology & Evolution. Vol. 3, published online December 17, 2018. doi: 10.1038/s41559-018-0728-7.