An unusual animal – a flying reptile hundreds of millions of years ago lived on Earth, along with dinosaurs – the pterosaur.
In addition to learning more about what they looked like, new discoveries about them fundamentally change the assumptions about the appearance of the living world from the time of large reptiles, as well as about when feathered animals first appeared.
The story of the origin of feathers has become very confusing in recent years because many of us have not yet come to terms with the fact that the body of some dinosaurs – at least in texture – looked more like a chicken than, say, a crocodile. A number of fossil remains of dinosaurs, namely, showed that many species had feathers, which you will certainly not see in dino parks or shops with children’s toys.
However, pterosaurs were not really “flying dinosaurs” as they are often said. Like many extinct marine reptiles such as ichthyosaurs, pterosaurs do not belong to the group of dinosaurs, although – from our perspective – they are very similar to them, and they lived at the same time.
Paleontologists have so far discovered various specimens of this animal that inhabited the planet about 160 million years ago. Some of them were quite tiny, living among the trees and feeding on insects. But among the pterosaurs were the largest flying creatures of all time, such as the kecalkoatl, named after the Aztec feathered serpentine god. Until a few days ago, paleontologists were convinced that all these pterosaurs had some kind of fur, nothing like the feathers of birds or the feathers of feathered dinosaurs. They also thought that feathers first appeared on Earth during the time of the dinosaurs.
Namely, as far as pterosaurs are concerned, in the middle of the 19th century, thanks to the fossil remains that were found at that time, it was determined that these animals had that specific type of fur. However, two – according to researchers – spectacular and well-preserved fossil remains recently found in China, showed something else. Namely, earlier researchers were not mistaken, pterosaurs did have fur, but with it, a good part of the body of these animals was covered with primitive feathers, just like dinosaurs.
How do they know that?
“If your little ones are branching, you have feathers,” explains Mike Benton of the University of Bristol, who led the research, the results of which were published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
On the specimen of the pterosaur, parts of the neck, head and wings were found, which were covered with branched fur, which turned out to be feathers. In fact, there are three different types of branches, or feathers, and the wing feathers are very similar to the feathers found in many dinosaurs.
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It doesn’t sound like a spectacular discovery, but it’s not even close to the end of the story. From this discovery, scientists concluded that perhaps pterosaurs and dinosaurs (such as the velociraptor from which birds and other species later evolved) evolved and acquired feathers simultaneously and independently of each other. Still, they expect things to be much simpler. For paleontologists, the more logical answer is that these groups of animals, pterosaurs and dinosaurs, had a common (feathered) ancestor.
This would mean that the first feathered animals on Earth could have originated not about 170 million years ago, as previously thought, but about 250 million years ago, Benton explains. He says that the next earlier common ancestor could be a crocodile and that it would not be very strange because we know that many mammals, from elephants to whales, have lost their fur. Maybe one day paleontologists will dig up a feathered crocodile?