Dinosaurs had feathers

Paleontology: Dispute over the plumage of the pterosaurs

For years, paleontologists have been arguing about when living things on earth first developed feathers: Were they an evolutionary trick used by the dinosaurs, who used it to protect themselves against the cold around 150 million years ago? Or did the feature originate 80 million years earlier in the pterosaurs, which are loosely related to the dinosaurs?

In 2018, researchers working with Zixiao Yang from Nanjing University presented evidence of the latter scenario: They encountered tiny hairline cracks in pterosaur fossils that formed complex structures like the branches of a tree. They occur in a similar form in birds, which is why the Chinese researchers attributed them to a fur-like plumage.

Now, David Unwin from the University of Leicester and Dave Martill from the University of Portsmouth think they can refute this interpretation: Even fiber strands in the wing membrane of pterosaurs could lead to such hairline cracks, write the two paleontologists in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. Accordingly, pterosaurs were probably as bald as a cooked turkey, and feathers did not develop until much later in dinosaurs.

With the publication, the debate is likely to gain momentum: "Nature Ecology & Evolution" also published a reply by the Chinese researchers in the same issue in which they reject the interpretation of their British colleagues.