The potential evolutionary link between hairs in mammals, feathers in birds and scales in reptiles has been debated for decades. Today, researchers of the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, Switzerland, demonstrate that all these skin appendages are homologous: they share a common ancestry. On the basis of new analyses of embryonic development, the Swiss biologists evidenced molecular and micro-anatomical signatures that are identical between hairs, feathers and scales at their early developmental stages. These new observations, published today in Science Advances, indicate that the three structures evolved from their common reptilian ancestor.
Mammalian hairs and avian feathers develop from a similar primordial structure called a 'placode': a local thickening of the epidermis with columnar cells that reduce their rate of proliferation and express very specific genes. This observation has puzzled evolutionary and developmental biologists for many years because birds and mammals are not sister groups: they evolved from different reptilian lineages. According to previous studies, reptiles' scales however do not develop from an anatomical placode. This would imply that birds and mammals have independently 'invented' placodes during their evolution.