July 4, 2014
New Discovery Reveals Insight Into Feathers, Flight Of Archaeopteryx
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online
Long believed to be one of the first-ever birds, a new Archaeopteryx species has provided additional evidence that feathers evolved long before creatures gained the ability to fly, according to research published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Researchers from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and the Bavarian State Collections of Paleontology and Geology in Munich, Germany found that the newest specimen of the basal bird had pennaceous (quill-like) feathers all over its body. However, the feathers were not for flight purposes – they evolved for other reasons.
The newly discovered specimen in just the eleventh Archaeopteryx fossil discovered, and according to the study authors, it possesses the best preserved plumage yet. It is being examined by LMU Munich paleontologist Dr. Oliver Rauhut and his colleagues, and its condition allows for it to be compared to other feathered dinosaurs.
“The new data make a significant contribution to the ongoing debate over the evolution of feathers and its relationship to avian flight,” the German university explained in a statement. “They also imply that the links between feather development and the origin of flight are probably much more complex than has been assumed up to now.”
The first Archaeopteryx fossils were discovered in 1861 at the same German limestone quarry where the most recent ones were found, and Dr. Rauhut said that the new specimen gives scientists new insights into the evolution of flight. Furthermore, the find proves that feathers were not formed primarily for that purpose, he told National Geographic.
Traces of the fossil adorning the feathered dinosaur were preserved in the fine-grained limestone surrounding the creature’s bones, explained National Geographic reporter Dan Vergano. Most of the skeleton was intact, although the skull had been crushed, and even the creature’s legs were adorned with feathers, he added.
The feathers on the wings of the creature were said to be shorter than expected when compared to previous fossils, Vergano said, adding to the mounting evidence that the Archaeopteryx was not an adept flier. In fact, Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History said that it might have been able to fly like “a turkey if it really tried.”
While previous specimens had revealed some evidence that the hind legs of the Archaeopteryx had feathers, Dr. Rauhut told BBC News that the new find “completes the picture.” He suggested that the creatures might have used the feathers for purposes such as camouflage, display, insulation or ground-based maneuvering, and that they might have helped steady it during landings, similar to the hindlimb feathers of modern haws and eagles.
Based on this new research, Norell told Vergano that an argument could be made that the long feathers evolved from the insulating down feathers observed on other types of feathered dinosaurs. The pennaceous feathers likely evolved in ancestors of Archaeopteryx and other early flightless birds, the study authors suggest.
After pennaceous feathers had evolved, early feathered dinosaurs could have eventually used them to fly, with Dr. Rauhut explaining that it was flight might have evolved “more than once in advanced predatory dinosaurs.” This “ground up” theory of feathered flight suggests that the characteristic evolved as an advantage to early ground-based birds (i.e. escaping from predators), and was not driven by gliding by early feathered birds.
Image 2 (below): Newly discovered fossil of Archaeopteryx. Credit: H. Tischlinger