A new study looking at the structure of feathers in bird-like dinosaurs has shed light on one of nature's most remarkable inventions – how flight might have evolved.
Academics at the Universities of Bristol, Yale and Calgary have shown that prehistoric birds had a much more primitive version of the wings we see today, with rigid layers of feathers acting as simple airfoils for gliding.
Close examination of the earliest theropod dinosaurs suggests that feathers were initially developed for insulation, arranged in multiple layers to preserve heat, before their shape evolved for display and camouflage.
As evolution changed the configuration of the feathers, their important role in the aerodynamics and mechanics of flight became more apparent.
Natural selection over millions of years ultimately modified dinosaurs' forelimbs into highly-efficient, feathered wings that could rapidly change its span, shape and area – a key innovation that allowed dinosaurs to rule the skies.
This basic wing configuration has remained more or less the same for the past 130 million years, with bird wings having a layer of long, asymmetrical flight feathers with short covert feathers on top. They are able to separate and rotate these flight feathers to gain height, change direction and even hover.
This formation allows birds to move in such a way as to produce both lift and thrust simultaneously – a capability that man, with the help of technology, is still trying to successfully imitate.
The research, published today [21 November] in Current Biology, looked at the dinosaur Anchiornis huxleyi and the Jurassic bird Archaeopteryx lithographica. The latter is 155 million years old and widely considered to be the earliest known bird, presenting a combination of dinosaur and bird characteristics.
Their wings differed from modern day birds in being composed of multiple layers of long feathers, appearing to represent early experiments in the evolution of the wing.
Although individual feathers were relatively weak due to slender feather shafts, the layering of these wing feathers is likely to have produced a strong airfoil.
The inability to separate feathers suggests that taking off and flying at low speeds may have been limited, meaning that wings were primarily used in high-speed gliding or flapping flight.
Dr Jakob Vinther, from the University of Bristol's Schools of Biological and Earth Sciences, said: "We are starting to get an intricate picture of how feathers and birds evolved from within the dinosaurs. We now seem to see that feathers evolved initially for insulation. Later in evolution, more complex vaned or pinnate feathers evolved for display.
"These display feathers turned out to be excellent membranes that could have been utilised for aerial locomotion, which only very late in bird evolution became what we consider flapping flight. This new research is shedding light not just on how birds came to fly, but more specifically on how feathers came to be the way they are today - one of the most amazing and highly specialised structures in nature."
Dr Nicholas Longrich of Yale University added: "By studying fossils carefully, we are now able to start piecing together how the wing evolved. Before, it seemed that we had more or less modern wings from the Jurassic onwards. Now it's clear that early birds were more primitive and represented transitional forms linking birds to dinosaurs. We can see the wing slowly becoming more advanced as we move from Anchiornis, to Archaeopteryx, to later birds."
University of Bristol: http://www.bristol.ac.uk
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
Animals took so long to evolve and thrive on Earth because of incredibly low levels of oxygen during a period more than a billion years ago, scientists say.
By combining compounds in just the right mixture, researchers have worked out how to produce the olfactory equivalent of white noise
The pain that scratching causes soothes an itch – but only for a second. As soon as the brain's response to that pain kicks it, it ramps up the itch further
A man's lifelong fear of spiders vanished overnight with the removal of a part of his brain – it gives an insight into where and how our fears are stored
Scientists have been puzzling for years over why some people survive Ebola while many others perish. A new study provides strong evidence that individual genetic differences play a major role in whether people die from the disease.
Zookeepers are keeping an eye on the 120-pound giraffe calf, making sure he's getting all the nutrition he needs. He could make his first appearance in the feeding habitat as soon as next week.
Biologists are reporting signs of a possible zombie apocalypse. Well, at least for the honeybee population. A parasite that has been turning bees on the West Coast into zombie-like creatures has started infecting bees in the East, and biologists are still puzzled as to how it all works.
An innate ability some people have to manipulate their vocal frequency could be the key to sounding charismatic, according to new research.
Time-lapse imagery of scavengers tucking in proves that dead jellyfish aren't unpalatable after all, so can return nutrients to the sea's food webs
When bird pairs break up females often lay more eggs with a new partner, but the split can be disastrous for the male of the species