On Pterosaurs and feathers.

Reconstruction of one of the studied anurognathid pterosaurs. Credit: Yuan Zhang/Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Feathers were once considered to be unique avialan structures. Recent studies indicated that non avian dinosaurs, as part of Archosauria, possessed the entirety of the known non keratin protein-coding toolkit for making feathers. Primitive theropods, such as Sinosauropteryx and the tyrannosaurs Dilong and Yutyrannus, and some plant-eating ornithischian dinosaurs, such as Tianyulong and Kulindadromeus, are known from their spectacularly preserved fossils covered in simple, hair-like filaments called ‘protofeathers’.

Other integumentary filaments, termed pycnofibres, has been reported in several pterosaur specimens, but there is still a substantial disagreement regarding their interpretation. J. Yang and colleagues described two specimens of short-tailed pterosaurs (NJU–57003 and CAGS–Z070) from the Middle-Late Jurassic Yanliao Biota, in northeast China (around 165-160 million years ago) with preserved structural fibres (actinofibrils) and four different types of pycnofibres. The specimens resemble Jeholopterus and Dendrorhynchoides, but they are relatively small.


Drawing of of (a) NJU–57003 and (b) CAGS–Z070 with skeletal element identification, outline of
preserved integument, and distribution of the four types of pycnofibres. From Yang et al., 2018.

Types 1 and 4 of pycnofibres occur in both specimens, but types 2 and 3 occur only in CAGS–Z070. This may reflect original biological differences or differences in the taphonomy of the two specimens. The pterosaur type 1 filaments resemble monofilaments in the ornithischian dinosaurs Tianyulong and Psittacosaurus and the coelurosaur Beipiaosaurus. The pterosaur type 2 filaments resemble the brush-like bundles of filaments in the coelurosaurs Epidexipteryx and Yi. Type 3 filaments resemble bristles in modern birds, but surprisingly do not correspond to any reported morphotype in non-avian dinosaurs. The pterosaur type 4 filaments are identical to the radially branched, downy feather-like morphotype found widely in coelurosaurs such as Caudipteryx and Dilong. Functions of these structures could include insulation, tactile sensing, streamlining and colouration (primarily for camouflage and signalling), as for bristles, down feathers and mammalian hairs.

Type 3 filaments (arrows) and similar structures (triangles). Scale bars: 10 mm in a, c and d; 1 mm in b. From Yang et al., 2018

Pterosaurs were winged cousins of the dinosaurs and lived from around 200 million years ago to 66 million years ago. In the early 1800’s, a fuzzy integument was first reported from the holotype of Scaphognathus crassirostris. A recent study on this specimen shows a subset of pycnofibers and actinofibrils. The discovery of integumentary structures in other pterosaurs, such as Pterorhynchus wellnhoferi (another rhamphorhynchoid pterosaur), and these exquisitely preserved pterosaurs from China, suggest that all Avemetatarsalia (the wide clade that includes dinosaurs, pterosaurs and close relatives) were ancestrally feathered.


Yang Z. et al., 2018. Pterosaur integumentary structure with complex feather-like branching. Nature Ecology and Evolution https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0728-7

Barrett PM, Evans DC, Campione NE. 2015 Evolution of dinosaur epidermal structures. Biol. Lett. 11: 20150229. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2015.0229

Kai R.K. Jäger, Helmut Tischlinger, Georg Oleschinski, and P. Martin Sander, Goldfuß was right: Soft part preservation in the Late Jurassic pterosaur Scaphognathus crassirostris revealed by reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) and UV light and the auspicious beginnings of paleo-art, https://doi.org/10.26879/713

Craig B. Lowe, Julia A. Clarke, Allan J. Baker, David Haussler and Scott V. Edwards, Feather Development Genes and Associated Regulatory Innovation Predate the Origin of Dinosauria, Mol Biol Evol (2015) 32 (1): 23-28. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msu309

One thought on “On Pterosaurs and feathers.

  1. Pingback: Fossil Friday Roundup: Friday December 21, 2018 | PLOS Paleo Community

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