Scientists in the U.S. say they’ve found the genes that made scales from dinosaurs become feathers in the ancestors of today’s birds. Feathers have complex structures, and they are believed to be the main key to the success of birds. However, scientists say they first appeared in dinosaurs, which are they say are the ancestors of birds that died out. If you’ve ever wondered about how dinosaur scales turned into bird feathers, you’re in luck because they believe they’ve figured it out.
How did dinosaur scales turn into bird feathers?
Scientists managed to express the genes they found in embryo alligator skin, which then caused the skin of the reptile to change into something similar to how they believe the earliest feathers looked. The leader of the study, Professor Cheng-Ming Choung from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, said that this discovery “links important recent palaeontological finds with modern biology,” according to the BBC.
As birds have had feathers ever since they appeared as a group, Professor Choung couldn’t get to study the early examples of feathers in any animals.
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“In today’s existing reptiles, the one more similar to dinosaurs is actually the alligator, belonging to the Archosaur group,” Professor Choung told the BBC.
Both dinosaurs and birds belong to this group of Archosaur reptiles. Professor Cheung wanted to test whether the feather-forming genes that he discovered in birds could turn the scales of alligators into feathers. That’s why he expressed the genes in the skin of alligator embryos.
“You can see we can indeed induce them to form appendages, although it is not beautiful feathers, they really try to elongate.” He told the BBC.
The “mutated” feathers are similar to the early feathers scientists say were found on dinosaurs 150 million years ago. Unlike their bird ancestors, alligators don’t have a genetic architecture that would support the central feather-making genes or hold the structure firmly on their skin, which is why we didn’t see a fully-feathered alligator today. But in the last couple of years, paleontologists say they’ve managed to find evidence of “proto feathers” in different dinosaur species.
“Feathered dinosaurs have unusual so-called proto-feathers, it looks like they have feathers, but the feathers are not identical to today’s (bird) feathers.”
Like mammalian fur, the early single-shafted feathers were supposed to keep the animal warm by preventing heat from escaping from their bodies. However, proto-feathers have evolved to be more complex and developed different colors. Feathers are now extremely useful to birds for many more reasons than just because they allow them to fly with ease.
The scientists published their findings in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.