It is official. Pterosaurs, the now-extinct flying reptiles that lived between 230 million and 66 million years ago, were covered in feathers.
An international team of paleontologists unearthed two well-preserved pterosaur fossils in China, revealing that feathers did not evolve in birds nor dinosaurs. The discovery pushes back the origin of feathers by 70 million years earlier than initially thought.
The study was published in the journal Nature.
Pterosaurs' Fluffy Feathers
However, the feathers of the flying reptiles do not resemble those that can be seen on present-day birds. Instead, three of the four feather types found were filament-based that looked like hair.
Researchers behind the study explained that the fuzz feathers' primary purpose was for insulation but the creatures also used them as camouflage, for tactile sensing, and aerodynamics. A fourth specimen looked more like the more familiar down feather.
The paleontologists have known for some time that pterosaurs might have had certain groups of the creatures that were covered in a furry-looking coat called pycnofibers based on fossil evidence. However, the new study is the definitive proof that these pycnofibers were different from the feathers found in birds and non-avian dinosaurs.
"These structures on the pterosaur make it look a bit like a fruit bat, or something like that, a fuzzy hairy creature," stated Mike Benton of the University of Bristol and one of the authors of the study. "They fly with great out-stretched bony wings that carry a substantial membrane, a bit like a bat."
The pterosaurs lived alongside dinosaurs from the Triassic period up to the Cretaceous period. The creatures were the first vertebrates to evolve with powered flights.
History Changing Discovery
The exquisite fossils were dated to be around 165 million to 160 million years old. They were found in great condition, with fur covering the head, body, and limbs of the pterosaurs. The fossils were unearthed in a site where evidence of ancient fish, insects, salamanders, and lakes were also found.
To study the fossils, the researchers used four different techniques: conventional microscope, scanning electron microscopes, fluorescence microscopy, and laser-stimulated fluorescence imaging. The techniques allowed the researchers to look inside the feathers that revealed melanosomes, suggesting that the pterosaurs had a brown color.