A new study, published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, provides the answer to one of the fundamental questions that biologists and paleontologists have increasingly asked in recent years about birds: were the latter born first or the feathers? The new work, which according to the researchers could change our understanding of the feathers themselves and their functions, suggests that they were formed at least 100 million years before the birds.
The study is mainly based on key fossil discoveries made in recent years, discoveries that suggested that pterosaurs were equipped with feathers. These new fossils have caused the very birth of feathers to retreat back into the evolutionary tree, even before the point considered as the birth of the first birds.
According to Mike Benton, a researcher at the University of Bristol and the main author of the study, it is more or less since 1994, the year in which numerous amazing specimens from China were found and analyzed, that we know that different species of dinosaurs had feathers. It is since then that the diatribe was born about the very birth of feathers that was not, since then, considered to match the birth of the same birds.
This research group, as reported by Maria McNamara, co-author of the study and researcher at University College Cork, was then lucky enough to work on new remains of a dinosaur from Russia, the Kulindadromeus. These are fossil remains that show incredibly well-preserved skin details, details that also show the presence of feather feathers. As this species is one of the most distant dinosaurs from the birds in the evolutionary tree, researchers have imagined that the feathers may have been born with the very first dinosaurs.
They also imagined this when analyzing the anatomy of modern birds such as chickens: “Modern birds such as chickens often have scales on their legs or necks, and we have shown that these are reversals: what had once been plumage has turned into scales. In fact, we have shown that the same genome regulation network drives the development of reptile scales, bird feathers and mammalian hair and that feathers may have evolved very early,” says Danielle Dhouailly, another researcher at the University of Grenoble involved in the study.
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