Scientists have made an absolutely freakish find recently, discovering that the Microraptor, a carnivorous dinosaur from 120 mill years ago that was about the size of a crow, may have left behind some prehistoric dandruff. This is the earliest known example of dandruff to date.
The prehistoric skin flakes are the only evidence scientists have of how dinosaurs shed their skin. The microraptor's dandruff is significant because at 125 million years old, it is the earliest evidence of dandruff.
Images of the dandruff taken with a powerful electron microscope show that the material is extremely well-preserved and is nearly identical to that found on modern birds.
Researchers from the national University of Ireland in Cork found among the remains of ancient dinosaurs hard skin cells filled with keratin, the stratum corneum.
"So that suggests they had lower body temperatures than modern birds, nearly like a transitional metabolism between a cold blooded reptile and a warm blooded bird".
A small crow-sized Microraptor from 125 million years ago had wings on all four of its limbs and a body covered in black feathers.
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Dr McNamara led the study, which is published in the latest issue of Nature Communications, in collaboration with Dr Chris Rogers, Dr Andre Toulouse and Tara Foley from UCC School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences; Dr Paddy Orr from UCD and an worldwide team of palaeontologists from the United Kingdom and China.
"Fossil cells have been preserved in incredible detail - down to the nanoscale level of keratin fibrils".
The researchers were seeing tough cells called corneocytes, which were filled with twisting spirals of keratin fibres - nearly identical to those found in modern birds, and also in human dandruff. As human dandruff, the skin flakes are composed of thick cells named corneocytes, packed with keratin proteins. Two other feathered dinosaurs Beipiaosaurus and Sinornithosaurus and a primitive bird called confuciusornis also revealed pieces of fossilized dandruff in their bodies.
Dr McNamara led the study, in collaboration with her postdoctoral researcher Dr Chris Rogers; Dr Andre Toulouse and Tara Foley; Dr Paddy Orr from UCD and an worldwide team of palaeontologists from the United Kingdom and China. Prof. Mike Benton said in a statement, "It shows that they shed their old skin in clumps rather than in one go, like modern snakes and lizards".
It is interesting to note that while modern birds have very fatty corneocytes with loosely packed keratin to allow them to cool down quicker in long-duration flights, dinosaurs did not because they would not have been able to fly.