Article image

Feathered dinosaurs had scaly skin like modern-day lizards

Recent research has uncovered a surprising detail about feathered dinosaurs: they weren’t entirely feathered. These ancient creatures sported a mix of reptile-like scaly skin and feathery patches, a revelation that’s changing our understanding of the evolution of feathers.

Feathered dinosaurs skin under UV

A seemingly unremarkable dinosaur fossil, when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light, revealed an unexpected secret: patches of preserved skin that fluoresced a vibrant orange-yellow.

This fascinating discovery occurred during the examination of a Psittacosaurus specimen by paleontologists at University College Cork (UCC) in Ireland. This finding indicates that feathers were not the sole covering of this dinosaur’s body.

The UV light exposed areas of preserved skin where feathers were not present, suggesting a more complex integumentary system than previously thought.

“The fossil truly is a hidden gem. The fossil skin is not visible to the naked eye, and it remained hidden when the specimen was donated to Nanjing University in 2021. Only under UV light is the skin visible, in a striking orange-yellow glow,” noted Dr. Zixiao Yang, one of the lead researchers.

Understanding the Psittacosaurus dinosaur

Psittacosaurus, a small ceratopsian dinosaur, roamed the earth during the Early Cretaceous period, approximately 130 to 100 million years ago.

This herbivorous creature thrived in what is now Asia, primarily in regions of modern-day China, Mongolia, and Russia.

Psittacosaurus stood out among its contemporaries due to its distinctive parrot-like beak, which inspired its name, translating to “parrot lizard.”

Growing to lengths of about 6.5 feet (2 meters), Psittacosaurus possessed a sturdy build and walked on two legs, although it could likely adopt a quadrupedal stance while feeding.

Its skull featured a prominent beak and powerful jaws, well-suited for slicing through tough plant material. Unlike later ceratopsians, such as Triceratops, Psittacosaurus lacked the characteristic horns and neck frill.

Glassy skin of feathered dinosaurs

The research team employed advanced imaging techniques, utilizing X-rays and infrared light to examine the fossilized skin in greater detail.

This allowed them to observe the intricate cellular structure of the skin, which had been remarkably preserved over millions of years.

Unexpectedly, their analysis revealed that the skin was primarily composed of silica, a mineral compound most commonly known as the main component of glass. This discovery marks the first instance of silica-based skin preservation in vertebrate fossils.

This fossil’s well-preserved soft tissue hints at more hidden finds in other specimens. Researchers can now explore new areas in ancient biology and evolution.

Zoned development concept

The most remarkable aspect of this discovery lies in what it reveals about the evolution of feathers.

“The evolution of feathers from reptilian scales is one of the most profound yet poorly understood events in vertebrate evolution. While numerous fossils of feathers have been studied, fossil skin is much more rare,” Prof. Maria McNamara, the senior author of the study, explains.

The researchers introduce the concept of “zoned development.” They suggest that soft, bird-like skin evolved only in feathered areas. The rest of the body retained scaly skin, similar to modern reptiles like lizards.

This unique adaptation allowed early feathered dinosaurs to protect against abrasion, dehydration, and parasites. Simultaneously, they could experiment with the evolutionary benefits of feathers.

Rewriting dinosaur history

This revelation challenges our previous understanding of the evolution of feathers, suggesting a more gradual and complex process than previously thought.

It paints a picture of a transitional period where dinosaurs sported a patchwork of scales and feathers, a far cry from the fully feathered creatures we often envision.

This research not only provides valuable insights into the evolution of feathered dinosaurs skin but also hints at a wealth of hidden information waiting to be discovered in other fossils. Who knows what other secrets lie hidden beneath the surface, waiting for the glow of UV light to reveal them?

As we continue to unearth the mysteries of the past, one thing is clear: the world of dinosaurs was far more diverse and fascinating than we ever imagined.

Feathered dinosaurs: Beyond the skin

Feathered dinosaurs have revolutionized our understanding of prehistoric life. The iconic Archaeopteryx, discovered in the 19th century, provided the first glimpse of a feathered dinosaur, bridging the gap between dinosaurs and birds with its avian and reptilian features.

Feathers initially evolved for insulation, helping dinosaurs like Sinosauropteryx retain body heat. Later, feathers became crucial for display and communication, evident in the colorful plumage of some species. Microraptor, with its four wings, illustrates the early stages of gliding and flight evolution.

Modern technology has transformed palaeontology. High-resolution imaging and electron microscopy reveal intricate details of feather structure and pigmentation.

Spectacular finds, like feathers preserved in amber, provide direct evidence of their color and pattern. Moreover, research on feathered dinosaurs sheds light on the origins of birds.

By tracing their evolutionary steps, scientists understand how avian features like flight and feathers developed. This research also helps explain the diversity and adaptations of modern birds.

Feathered dinosaurs highlight the dynamic evolution from ancient theropods to today’s birds. As new technologies and discoveries emerge, our understanding of these fascinating creatures continues to grow, showcasing the intricate tapestry of life on Earth.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day