The South Pole has been home to penguins, whales and — 100 million years ago — dinosaurs with fluffy feathers, new findings show.
This is the first time scientists have ever found evidence that dinosaurs used feathers in extreme climates like the southern polar circle, according to the study, which was published this week in the journal Gondwana Research.
A team of international scientists examined a collection of 118-million-year-old fossils that were found in Koonwarra, Australia, but that had accumulated in sediment at the bottom of a lake close to the South Pole millennia ago. The collection included dinosaur bones and “proto-feathers from meat-eating dinosaurs,” said a press release from Sweden’s Uppsala University, which contributed to the study.
The term “proto-feathers” means that these ancient feathers weren’t as complex as the feathers in birds today. Instead, the press release said, dinosaurs at the time would have been covered with simpler “hair-like” feathers for insulation.
“The discovery of ‘proto-feathers’ at Koonwarra, therefore, suggests that fluffy feather coats might have helped small dinosaurs keep warm in ancient polar habitats,” said Martin Kundrat of Slovakia’s Pavol Jozef Safarik University, one of the authors.
Much like how bird feathers today are often colored or patterned, these ancient dinosaur feathers were also likely patterned, the press release said. Researchers found traces of melanosomes — the cells that contain color pigments — on the fossilized feathers, in “distinct bands” that may have represented the original patterning.
Researchers believe the feathers were dark in color — perhaps to help the dinosaurs with camouflage, communication with each other, or to absorb more heat in the frigid polar temperatures.
Dinosaur skeletons and ancient bird bones have been found at high altitudes before — but this is the first fossilized evidence of feathered dinosaurs.
“These Australian fossil feathers are therefore highly significant because they came from dinosaurs and small birds that were living in a seasonally very cold environment with months of polar darkness every year,” said study author Benjamin Kear of Uppsala University.
Other feathered dinosaurs have previously been found elsewhere — the bird-like dinosaur Archaeopteryx, largely found in Germany, had feathers and wings. In China, too, researchers have found evidence of a “dragon dinosaur” with short, resplendently-feathered wings.