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Feathers Before Flight: New Evidence from Crow-like Dino

Jul 03, 2014 12:34 PM EDT

A new fossil specimen of the dinosaur Archaeopteryx has been discovered, and it's utterly covered in feathers from head to toe. Researchers say that this could provide new evidence that feathers evolved long before flight was a reality.

It has long been thought that the iconic bird-like dinosaur Archaeopteryx never actually took to the skies, despite heavy feathering. Past fossils have shown that the crow-sized animal certainly sported feathers on its wings and tail, but a new 150-million-year-old fossil revealed that the animal was completely covered with long shafted feathers.

Interestingly, the placement of these long feathers, called "pennaceous" feather - similar to those seen in flying birds today - does not make much sense for flight, indicating that they may have been used for other purposes long before flight became a primary mode of movement.

Mark Norell, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has spent years studying feathered dinosaur fossils.

"It probably didn't fly like a bird at all - maybe like a turkey if it really tried," he told National Geographic.

According to Norell, it is very possibly that these long "flight" feathers actually evolved from practical insulating ones over time, and not for flight, but for things like lining nests, camouflage, or even just plain display.

The authors of a study on the recent Archaeopteryx specimen seem to agree, writing in the journal Nature that "pennaceous feathers on the tail, hindlimb and arms of advanced maniraptorans and basal avialans strongly indicates that these structures evolved in a functional context other than flight, most probably in relation to display."

The authors settled on a "ground up" explanation for flight. The theory describes how pennaceous feathers at first served other purposes, but eventually were adapted for semi-flight after chasing prey or fleeing from predators started to be augmented with "turkey-like" flaps of the wing.

The study was published in Nature on July 2.

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