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
|Contact: Philippa Walker|
University of Bristol