Scientists Have Turned Alligator Scales Into Feathers To Learn How Birds Evolved From Dinosaurs

Herschel HoffmeyerShutterstock

Scientists have taken alligator scales and turned them into feathers in the lab. If you’re main question on hearing that is “why?” it was all done to get a better understanding of how dinosaurs developed feathers and how birds evolved from dinosaurs.

“In human evolution the great achievement is the brain, in birds it is the feathers,” lead author Cheng-Ming Choung, a professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, said to the BBC, as reported by Newsweek.

According to Newsweek, scientists pinpointed the feather-developing genes in birds and stimulated the same genes in alligator embryos which triggered the alligator scales to turn into feathers. The full text of their research can be found in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

The dinosaurs that evolved into birds had scales, but according to an article published in the Smithsonian Mag since 1996, paleontologists have found about 30 types of dinosaurs with feathers. These dinosaurs were not ancestors to modern birds, but they did have protofeathers, which were made of branched filaments. They would have looked more like hair than what we’ve come to recognize as the feathers of birds.

Most of these dinosaurs with feathers were coelurosaurs – the large group of theropod dinosaurs that includes tyrannosaurs, deinonychosaurs and the therizinosaurs, among others. The “feathers” weren’t just found on the small bird-like dinosaurs. Thirty foot-long tyrannosaurs, like the Yutyrannus, had this coat of protofeathers as well.


Even though they evolved from dinosaurs, most birds of today don’t have these protofeathers.

Alligators, on the other hand, are almost biologically identical to their ancestors from 8 million years go, according to a study by The University Of Florida. This is one of the reasons why scientist chose their scales for the dinosaur feather study. Also, birds and alligators have a common ancestor, the archosaur, Newsweek noted.

Given their success in manipulating the alligator scales into feathers, the research team has started to collaborate with plastic surgeons to find out how their findings can help reanimate human scar tissue. Scar tissue often blocks new skin cells from forming on the affected area even after it’s completely healed. The research could be the missing piece that allows scientists to crack the code to skin regeneration that will help to reduce the prominence of a scar’s appearance.