The Mystery of Feathers

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Most depictions of dinosaurs feature the fearsome creatures with scaly skin – but that wasn’t always the case.

Instead, recent discoveries show that some dinosaurs such as the vicious velociraptor sported feathers. In fact, the prevailing scientific consensus is that modern birds descended from members of the extinct reptiles.

Now, a new study is shedding some new light on how dino scales evolved into feathers, a transition pivotal in vertebrate evolution, according to Cosmos Magazine.

“The evolution of feathers from reptilian scales is one of the most profound yet poorly understood events in vertebrate evolution,” said senior study author Maria McNamara.

Paleontologists from University College Cork in Ireland in collaboration with Nanjing University in China analyzed a Psittacosaurus fossil specimen found in northeastern China, dating back 133-120 million years.

Psittacosaurus, a small, bipedal ceratopsian dinosaur weighing up to 220 pounds, lived during the early Cretaceous period in what is now Asia. Unlike their larger Triceratops relatives, they had notable filamentous structures on their tails, indicating early feather development.

For their paper, researchers utilized ultraviolet light to reveal previously unseen patches of preserved skin, which glowed orange-yellow under ultraviolet (UV) light. Further X-ray and infrared analysis exposed detailed cellular structures of the fossilized skin, composed primarily of silica, a mineral often used in glass-making.

Lead author Zixiao Yang described the fossil as a “hidden gem,” noting that analysis on the Psittacosaurus’ skin – invisible without UV light – suggests there could be other examples similarly hidden away, waiting to be discovered, the BBC noted.

At the same time, the study also showed that the extinct creature had mixed skin, with reptilian scaly patches in some areas and bird-like feathered skin in others.

“This zoned development would have maintained essential skin functions, such as protection against abrasion, dehydration and parasites,” McNamara explained. “The first dinosaur to experiment with feathers could therefore survive and pass down the genes for feathers to their offspring.”

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