The study also has implications for the next closest relatives of troodontids and dromaeosaurids: birds. An important step in the origin of modern birds was the evolution of the perching foot.
"A grasping foot is present in the closest relatives of birds, but also in the earliest birds like Archaeopteryx," Fowler said. "We suggest that this originally evolved for predation, but would also have been available for use in perching. This is what we call 'exaptation:' a structure evolved originally for one purpose that can later be appropriated for a different use."
The new study proposes that a similar mechanism may be responsible for the evolution of flight.
"When a modern hawk has latched its enlarged claws into its prey, it can no longer use the feet for stabilization and positioning," Fowler said. "Instead the predator flaps its wings so that the prey stays underneath its feet, where it can be pinned down by the predator's bodyweight."
The researchers suggest that this 'stability flapping' uses less energy than flight, making it an intermediate flapping behavior that may be key to understanding how flight evolved.
"The predator's flapping just maintains its position, and does not need to be as powerful or vigorous as full flight would require. Get on top, stay on top; it's not trying to fly away," Fowler said. "We see fully formed wings in exquisitely preserved dromaeosaurid fossils, and from biomechanical studies we can show that they were also able to perform a rudimentary flapping stroke. Most researchers think that they weren't powerful enough to fly; we propose that the less demanding stability flapping would be a viable use for such a wing, and this behavior would be consistent with the unusual adaptations of the feet."
Another group of researchers has proposed that understanding flapping behaviors is key to understanding the evolution of flight, a view with which Fowler agrees.<
|Contact: Evelyn Boswell|
Montana State University