Feathers from today’s birds share more with those from dinosaurs than previously believed, according to an X-ray analysis that indicates similar protein composition across both groups of organisms. This discovery provides us with new insight into their evolution over hundreds of millions of years.
Feathers began evolving gradually within dinosaur groups from primitive scales. Early feathers likely provided thermal insulation or temperature regulation. Over time, however, theropod dinosaurs developed more complex feather structures with barbs (barbs) and hollow structures (spines), providing multiple functions, including gliding or even displays during nuptial displays.
However, until now, paleontologists had believed that dinosaur feathers and modern bird feathers remained distinct both structurally and compositionally. A recent analysis challenges this idea.
Beta proteins were already present 125 million years ago, according to researchers at University College Cork in Ireland who examined three ancient animal remains as part of this work.
Sinornithosaurus was a small theropod dinosaur found in China dating from the late Cretaceous period with primitive feathers; Confuciusornis, an early Cretaceous bird (125 million years old), was also found there; and another unspecified species lived 50 million years ago within what is now called the Green River Formation of Wyoming in the United States.
Researchers conducting X-ray and infrared light analyses on ancient bird feathers discovered traces of beta-corn proteins, structural proteins commonly found in the corneal tissues of various organisms, including humans, which play an essential role in modern bird feather structures such as strength and flexibility.
Scientists had believed, prior to this research, that ancient animal feathers contained a different protein composition than seen today, specifically alpha proteins, which are weaker. But in reality, dinosaur feathers contained mostly beta proteins that eventually changed into alpha proteins during fossilization, according to press releases from scientific institutions.
Researchers have come to realize that modern feather chemistry may actually predate even our modern assumptions of it, according to details published in the Nature Ecology and Evolution journal.