Michel Milinkovitch only bought the naked bearded dragon because he was curious.
He had stumbled upon the unfortunate, odd-looking creature while visiting a reptile breeder. It was utterly scale-less, covered only in leathery, wrinkled skin, and it lacked the spiked neck frill characteristic of its species. Wondering what kind of genetic fluke might have created it, Milinkovitch took the mutant back to his lab at the University of Geneva, where he studies evolutionary developmental biology, and asked one of his grad students to take a look at its DNA.
The results of that research could solve a longstanding puzzle in biology. In a study published Friday in the journal Science Advances, Milinkovitch and his grad student, Nicolas Di-Poï, report that the mutated gene that robbed the bearded dragon of its scales is the same gene that controls feather development in birds and fur in mammals. Although the three features look very different in adult animals, they start in the same place.
"It's interesting, because these are really key features that allow us to recognize lineages," Milinkovitch said. "How do you recognize birds? Because they have feathers. And mammals have fur, and reptiles have scales."
These might look like fundamental differences, he noted, but really they are fundamentally the same. "They're all inherited from a common structure that then diverged hugely," Milinkovitch said.
The current diversity of feathers, fur and scales is part of what made their origins so mystifying to scientists. There are almost no known intermediate forms to illustrate how they might be related to one another. That's largely because the features are so fragile - while bone and teeth can be preserved as fossils, delicate skin appendages are usually lost to time. In the absence of physical evidence from the past, scientists try to interpret the present, for instance, by studying developing embryos for clues to how traits evolved.
Early on in embryonic development, feathers and fur look startlingly similar - both begin as tiny, thick accumulations of cells on the skin known as anatomical placodes. This shared morphology indicates that the features have the same evolutionary roots, which would seem to make sense, since birds and mammals evolved from a common ancestor some 320 million years ago.
But that ancestor was also the predecessor of modern reptiles; in fact, reptiles and birds are far more closely related than birds and mammals. Yet reptile scales develop very differently than feathers and fur - or they seemed to, at any rate. Not a lot of scientists study reptile embryos, Milinkovitch noted ("model species" like fruit flies and mice tend to get most of the attention), but those who did generally couldn't find evidence of anatomical placodes.
That left biologists with two possible explanations, Milinkovitch noted, neither of which was particularly satisfying.
"Either the placode was ancestral for everyone and then it was lost multiple times in independent lineages of reptile . . . or birds and mammals invented placodes independently," he said. The second possibility seemed particularly unlikely because research had revealed that the same exact gene, called EDA, controlled placode development in both groups.
That's where things stood when Di-Poï began parsing the genome of the naked bearded dragon his adviser had brought back to the lab. He pinpointed the mutation that prevented scales from developing, only to discover that it was EDA - the same gene responsible for feathers and fur.
That prompted the duo to take a closer look at the embryos of normal bearded dragons during development. They realized that the tiny creatures did have anatomical placodes, they just appeared and dispersed differently than the versions biologists are accustomed to seeing in mammals and birds.
"You have to look at the right places at the right time otherwise you don't see them," Milinkovitch said. "Now of course, once you know this it's much easier to to find them because you know where to look and when to look, but before people didn't know and they overlooked them."
Eventually, he and Di-Poï identified placodes in several species of snake, lizard and crocodile.
"They obviously inherited this from a common ancestor," Milinkovitch said.
"That makes sense, ecologically speaking, when you think about, 'what is the innovation of amniotes?' " he continued, using the term to describe creatures like reptiles, birds and mammals, whose fetuses develop in membrane-bound amniotic sac that allows their mothers to lay fertilized eggs on land (or nurture them inside the uterus, as most mammals do).
Unlike amphibians and lobe-finned fish, amniotes aren't anchored to water by the need to lay their eggs there. That meant it was worth investing in adaptations that allowed us to live entirely terrestrial lives, like skin or scales that keep us from drying out. Hundreds of millions of years after reptiles, birds, and mammals diverged from this original amniote, we are united by the outcomes of this innovation.
"They are extremely different morphologically, but if you look past that you can see the homology," Milinkovitch said. "That's the beauty of it."