A group of researchers at University College Cork have made a “remarkable” discovery about pterosaurs, the flying relatives of dinosaurs.

The international team of paleontologists discovered that pterosaurs were able to control the color of their feathers using melanin pigments.

An international team of palaeontologists - led by UCC's Dr Aude Cincotta and Prof. Maria McNamara - has discovered new evidence that pterosaurs, the flying relatives of dinosaurs, were able to control the colour of their feathers using melanin pigments. https://t.co/8aeMSO25Ki pic.twitter.com/StJMtP124u

— UCC Ireland (@UCC) April 20, 2022

The team’s research, entitled “Pterosaur melanosomes support signalling functions for early feathers,” was published in the prestigious journal Nature on April 20.

The study was led by University College Cork (UCC) paleontologists Dr. Aude Cincotta (UCC & Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences) and Prof. Maria McNamara and Dr. Pascal Godefroit from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, with an international team of scientists from Brazil and Belgium.

Dinosaurs were not the only animals with coloured feathers - visual signalling not just thermoregulation drove early feather evolution @uccBEES @UCCSEFS @UCCResearch @iCRAGcentre https://t.co/vxirDPcoSe

— Maria McNamara (@MariaMcN_palaeo) April 20, 2022

The new study is based on analyses of a new 115 million-year-old fossilized headcrest of the pterosaur Tupandactylus imperator from north-eastern Brazil. Pterosaurs lived side by side with dinosaurs, 230 to 66 million years ago. 

This species of pterosaur is famous for its bizarre huge headcrest. The team discovered that the bottom of the crest had a fuzzy rim of feathers, with short wiry hair-like feathers and fluffy branched feathers. 

“We didn’t expect to see this at all”, said Dr. Cincotta. “For decades, paleontologists have argued about whether pterosaurs had feathers. The feathers in our specimen close off that debate for good as they are very clearly branched all the way along their length, just like birds today."

The team then studied the feathers with high-powered electron microscopes and found preserved melanosomes – granules of the pigment melanin.

Unexpectedly, the new study shows that the melanosomes in different feather types have different shapes. 

“In birds today, feather color is strongly linked to melanosome shape,” Prof. McNamara said.

“Since the pterosaur feather types had different melanosome shapes, these animals must have had the genetic machinery to control the colors of their feathers. This feature is essential for color patterning and shows that coloration was a critical feature of even the very earliest feathers.”

Thanks to the collective efforts of the Belgian and Brazilian scientists and authorities working with a private donor, the remarkable specimen has been repatriated to Brazil.

“It is so important that scientifically important fossils such as this are returned to their countries of origin and safely conserved for posterity,” said Dr. Godefroit.

“These fossils can then be made available to scientists for further study and can inspire future generations of scientists through public exhibitions that celebrate our natural heritage."