Scientists know that dinosaurs and birds might have shared some characteristics, so a team of researchers decided to find out what stage of the evolution they shared. It turns out that ancient birds initially had scales, which later turned into feathers.
Dinosaurs used to have feathers, and birds used to have scales
A team of researchers from the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California have decided to find out how ancient birds looked like. Their findings revealed they actually had scales, and used alligators to reach this conclusion. They took alligator genes and edited them so that they could find out how the scales evolved into feathers.
First of all, the researchers looked at those genes which produce feathers in birds. Afterwards, they genetically engineered alligator genes and merged them with the feather-producing ones, and looked at what happened. This is how they observed the genes made the alligator scales turn feathery.
Both dinosaurs and birds evolved from the same family, namely the Archosaurs. They evolved during the Jurassic period, and looked more similar than we would expect. Both of them had scales, which later evolved into feathers.
The alligators were the key in this mystery
In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for such creatures to evolve feathers. A previous study documented the finding of a dinosaur fossil which was covered both in scales and in plumage. This was the first example of a reptile which had both, and which started revealing the similarities between dinosaurs and birds.
However, birds have changed a lot since they were formed as a species. This means it was hard to find out what genes they shared with the ancient reptiles. Fortunately, alligators still preserved many of the genetic material of their ancestors, so researchers knew they could reveal the mystery of the feathers and scales.