Science & Technology

Feathers came 100 million years before birds: Study

The structures formed 250 million years ago in the Early Triassic period not for display or flight, but purely for insulation

By DTE Staff
Last Updated: Monday 10 June 2019
An illustration of Pterosaur. Photo: Yuan Zhang/University of Nanjing An illustration of Pterosaur. Photo: Yuan Zhang/University of Nanjing

A team of paleontologists have found that feathers did not originate with birds, or even with dinosaurs, but they formed 250 million years ago in the Early Triassic period.

In the evolutionary tree, the dinosaurs with feathers were much more closely related to the origin of birds, according to the University of Bristol.

“This was not so hard to believe. So, the origin of feathers was pushed back at least to the origin of those bird-like dinosaurs, maybe 200 million years ago,” said Baoyu Jiang from the University of Nanjing in China.

But, the study published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, demonstrated these structures arose 100 million year before the evolution of birds.

Studying a new dinosaur from Russia named Kulindadromeus, the researchers found “well-preserved skin covered with scales on the legs and tail, and strange whiskery feathers all over its body”.

Earlier in 2019, fossils of two pterosaurs — flying reptiles — from China, also showed feathers.

“We saw that many of their whiskers were branched. We expected single strands — monofilaments — but what we saw were tufts and down feathers. Pterosaurs had feathers.”

“This drives the origin of feathers back to 250 million years ago at least. The point of origin of pterosaurs, dinosaurs and their relatives,” explained lead author Mike Benton, a professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences.

The Early Triassic world experienced violent volcanic eruptions, climate change triggering the most devastating mass extinction ever.

Besides, the period also saw the evolution of dinosaurs as well as mammals, which probably set-off a evolutionary turmoil. The feathers likely arose to provide insulation in the warm-blooded precursors of dinosaurs and pterosaurs. The structures were used for display or flight much later, the ScienceAlert reported.

"So, the dinosaurs, pterosaurs and their ancestors had feathers too. Feathers then probably arose to aid this speeding up of physiology and ecology, purely for insulation. The other functions of feathers, for display and of course for flight, came much later,” Benton said.

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