A new scenario for the evolutionary origin of hair, feather, and avian scales

Authors

  • Danielle Dhouailly

    1. Equipe Ontogenèse et Cellules Souches du Tégument, Centre de Recherche INSERM UJF – U823, Institut Albert Bonniot, Site Santé– La Tronche, Grenoble, France
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Danielle Dhouailly, Equipe Ontogenèse et Cellules Souches du Tégument, Centre de Recherche INSERM UJF – U823, Institut Albert Bonniot, Site Santé– La Tronche, BP170, 38042 Grenoble Cedex 9, France. E: Danielle.Dhouailly@ujf-grenoble.fr

Abstract

In zoology it is well known that birds are characterized by the presence of feathers, and mammals by hairs. Another common point of view is that avian scales are directly related to reptilian scales. As a skin embryologist, I have been fascinated by the problem of regionalization of skin appendages in amniotes throughout my scientific life. Here I have collected the arguments that result from classical experimental embryology, from the modern molecular biology era, and from the recent discovery of new fossils. These arguments shape my view that avian ectoderm is primarily programmed toward forming feathers, and mammalian ectoderm toward forming hairs. The other ectoderm derivatives – scales in birds, glands in mammals, or cornea in both classes – can become feathers or hairs through metaplastic process, and appear to have a negative regulatory mechanism over this basic program. How this program is altered remains, in most part, to be determined. However, it is clear that the regulation of the Wnt/beta-catenin pathway is a critical hub. The level of beta-catenin is crucial for feather and hair formation, as its down-regulation appears to be linked with the formation of avian scales in chick, and cutaneous glands in mice. Furthermore, its inhibition leads to the formation of nude skin and is required for that of corneal epithelium. Here I propose a new theory, to be further considered and tested when we have new information from genomic studies. With this theory, I suggest that the alpha-keratinized hairs from living synapsids may have evolved from the hypothetical glandular integument of the first amniotes, which may have presented similarities with common day terrestrial amphibians. Concerning feathers, they may have evolved independently of squamate scales, each originating from the hypothetical roughened beta-keratinized integument of the first sauropsids. The avian overlapping scales, which cover the feet in some bird species, may have developed later in evolution, being secondarily derived from feathers.

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