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When Dragons Gave Color to the Skies

The ancient skies were ablaze with color - the colors of dragons.

Terra's ancient dragons, pterosaurs, just got a serious makeover. Pterosaurs are flying reptiles and were the most abundant flying vertebrates when dinosaurs were around. Scientists used to think they were mostly dull-colored and with few to no feathers; whatever feathers they did have were not complex and served mainly as temperature regulation. But a recent new study published in Nature journal suggests pterosaurs' colors and feather structures were much more like birds' feathers in their complexity and beauty.

The study comes from a fossil soft-tissue specimen of a Brazilian tapejarid, a kind of pterosaur with huge head crests. Part of the skull was found, along with branched structures that contained melanosomes, which are chemicals that produce color. The melanosomes exhibited complex geometries that indicated exotic coloring.

From the study: Details of the cranial crest of MCT.R.1884, a new specimen of Tupandactylus cf. imperator (Pterosauria: Tapejaridae) from the Lower Cretaceous Crato Formation, Brazil. a, Incomplete cranium showing preserved soft tissue crest. bf, Detail of the integumentary structures associated with the posterior part of the skull. b, Monofilaments. c, Branched feathers. d, Detail of curved branched feather in c. e, f, Straight branched feather (e) with detail (f). White arrowhead in e indicates the basal calamus. gi, SEM of melanosomes in the soft tissues of MCT.R.1884. g, Ovoid melanosomes from the elongate fibres of the soft tissue crest. h, Elongate melanosomes from a monofilament. i, Ovoid melanosomes from a branched feather. c, cristae; p, postmaxillary process; op, occipital process; s, skin. Scale bars, 50 mm (a); 5 mm (b); 2 mm (c); 250 μm (df); 2 μm (gi).

This discovery is particularly exciting for paleontology. Not only does it improve our idea of what pterosaurs looked like, it also gives scientists a greater understanding of feather evolution. Complex feathers previously were thought to be exclusive to birds and dinosaurs (pterosaurs are not dinosaurs), but it turns out they're not. With the new information from the study, the researches were able to conclude that feathers, especially complex feathers, likely originated in a Triassic ancestor of dinosaurs and pterosaurs.

The study goes into detail about what the discovery means for feather structure and appearance in pterosaurs and feather evolution, but perhaps its aesthetic significance is better understood visually.

What we think pterosaurs look like:

What pterosaurs actually look like:

Credit: Dmitry Bogdanov, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY 3.0.

Credit: Dmitry Bogdanov, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY 3.0.

Credit: Mark Witton, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY 3.0.

Credit: Oleg Kuznetsov - 3depix -, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Credit: Bob Nicholls.

Source: Cincotta, A., Nicolaï, M., Campos, H.B.N. et al. Pterosaur melanosomes support signalling functions for early feathers. Nature 604, 684–688 (2022).

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