Every species has its own share of bad hygiene habits, but dinosaurs with dandruff? That’s not something we expected. A recent paper published in Nature Communications revealed the discovery of a 125 million-year-old dinosaur with dandruff. The findings illustrate a universal mechanism for dinos: they shed skin.
According to Mike Benton, co-author of the new study and professor of vertebrate paleontology at the University of Bristol, no-one gave much consideration to the way dinosaurs might shed their skin in the past. He explained that the new discoveries “tell us that dinosaurs were like birds, shedding their skin in small flakes.”
The findings arose from the examination of feathers from dinosaur species, namely Beipiaosaurus, Microraptor, Sinornithosaurus, and the early Confuciusornis from the Cretaceous era in China. Benton and his research team had been studying the specimens since 2007, and the fossilized dandruff is just their latest remarkable development.
All animals clear themselves of old skin so they can grow bigger and survive environmental challenges with a new layer of exterior tissue. Prior to the latest discovery, there was a lack of understanding as to the mechanics of dinosaur shedding. The most widely accepted theory was that molting among these wild beasts happened in pieces, as it does in their closest modern relatives (birds and crocodiles).
During the study, the researchers kept seeing weird white blobs all over the plumage they were examining with their electron microscopes. Upon deeper analysis, using an ion beam microscope, the team recognized the specks as corneocytes – tough cells made of coiled fibers of keratin, found in both human dandruff and modern birds.
While Benton says they tried to avoid using the word dandruff in their study “since it’s a term usually applied to skin flakes between the hair of humans,” it is apparent that this was basically what they were seeing “trapped between shafts of feathers in the fossil birds and dinosaurs.” Benton and his colleagues think dandruff probably developed during the Middle Jurassic period when there was an abundance of feathery dinosaurs.
The new findings detail the skin structure of the dinosaur fossil, revealing that the species studied “were warm-blooded, but not as greatly as modern birds.” While flying can release massive amounts of metabolic heat, and modern birds use skin- shedding to make evaporative cooling easier, the dinosaurs possessed more closely packed corneocytes that are not as freely shed. This means that these dinos likely produced less heat during flight.
Danny Barta, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, described the study as “groundbreaking, particularly because we’ve never had such clear insight into the skin of feathered dinosaurs before.”
Benton and his research team aim to broaden their study of skin and feathers to other dinosaur species and analyze how common these features are, especially in comparison to modern birds.