New Fossil Suggests More Complex Evolution for Feathers and Flight

By Gemma Tarlach | July 2, 2014 12:00 pm
The 11th specimen of Archaeopteryx under ultraviolet light. Credit: Nature.

The new specimen of Archaeopteryx under ultraviolet light. Photo courtesy of Helmut Tischlinger.

We all know the early bird gets the worm, but apparently it also gets a fabulous set of feathered “trousers.”

Extensive feather preservation on a new specimen of Archaeopteryx, the earliest known bird, is giving researchers an unprecedented look at how both feathers and flight may have evolved among theropod dinosaurs, the ancestors of modern birds. The fossil’s plumage also challenges previous theories about why feathers evolved.

Birds of a Feather

Feathers covered not only the new specimen’s wings and tail, but also its entire body, including its legs. Short, tuft-like feathers on the fossil’s ankles have the appearance almost of pant cuffs, prompting researchers to describe the animal as wearing feathered “trousers.” All of the preserved feathers are pennaceous, or non-downy. Pennaceous feathers are key to birds’ ability to fly, and their evolution has long been debated among paleontologists.

Researchers in both the United States and Europe had previously argued that Archaeopteryx had weak feathers that limited its ability to fly. But the authors of today’s paper, published in Nature, contend that earlier research was based on fossils with inferior feather preservation. The new Archaeopteryx fossil, found in Germany, is so exquisitely preserved that the identification of the structure of individual feathers is still possible even in areas with significant overlapping of those feathers.

The impressive preservation allowed the research team to analyse the variety and location of several different types of pennaceous feather on the animal’s body. They concluded that the feathers of Archaeopteryx evolved for a function other than flight, most likely as display, similar to the colorful plumage of many modern birds. According to the new findings, the eventual, crucial role the feathers played in flight was an exaptation: essentially, an evolutionary re-purposing of an existing trait.

Researchers took their exaptation theory one step further by suggesting not just feathers, but also forelimb anatomy and other physiological traits, evolved in therapod dinosaurs for non-flight-related functions. This selection likely happened repeatedly and in different species at different times, creating a far more complex evolution of birds than previously theorized.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: birds, dinosaurs, evolution
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  • Mike Shefler

    If it evolved for display, why feathers and not just flaps of skin like a rooster’s comb? Seems to me that feathers must also have served some other purpose.

    • Bob Prager

      I always thought it was insulation — prevents heat loss…

    • JR

      You could ask the same question about a peacock’s tail. Feathers started out – presumably – as fancy scales. Display seems at least as likely as insulation – the Cretaceous was pretty warm ; and my impression is that feathered species were rare, which suggests the purpose was very specific.

  • Atwood

    Modern birds also have feather trousers and it’s kind of adorable. Both my parrots strut around the house in their feather pants. They’d have chilly legs without them.

  • Drchuck Ll

    This is awesome. Hopefully more finds like this will shed even more light on the evolution of birds. Love to watch the little dinos at the backyard bird feeder.

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  • lmanningok

    I saw a documentary in which the genes of three chicken embryos were tweaked for the following results: One would grow a long tail; the second would have scales, not feathers; and the third would have teeth. Put together, that sounds to my laywoman’s ears like a velociraptor.

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  • Nuke

    Form follows function, so what would be the function of feathers as display? With today’s birds, one might observe that flamboyant male plumage attracts predators (like cats), which ipso facto distracts the predators from the females. Speed and agility keep the male alive as he dodges the predator and leads the would-be predator further away. You can appreciate why a female would find the male attractive–not for his intrinsic beauty but for his role as a protector. Display, then, is entwined with sexual selection, but it is also inherently entwined with behavior. Yet the feathers-as-display theory may have a chicken-and-egg problem (pun regretfully intended) in that the feathering might need to be quite well developed from an evolutionary standpoint before it would make a significant difference. So why did feathering begin–what good would it be at even an early stage?
    There are examples of earlier species than archaeopteryx that have scales with downy edges. What does this tell us? First, we note that down is lighter than scale. Second, down has insulating properties. Third, insulation and lightness were growing more important than armor.
    We might deduce that the climate was getting colder (or hotter), making insulation more important. We might also deduce that lightness was advantageous either to better outrun new breeds of predators, or to catch new breeds of prey. What we can not deduce is that it had anything to do with looks at that stage.


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