Researchers have discovered a new fossil specimen of the ancient Archaeopteryx, an early bird that lived around 150 million years ago. The new fossil shows that the ancient specimen was covered completely in feathers, which may give clues to the evolution of feathers.

Scientists have come to the conclusion that feathers may have not always been used for flight, but instead were used solely for flashy displays. The preservation of the feathers from the newly found Archaeopteryx fossil helped researchers come to this conclusion.

“The excellent preservation of the feathers in the new specimen helps to clarify many contentious issues,” senior author Oliver Rauhut of Ludwig-Maximilians University Munich told Discovery News. “The specimen not only shows the wing and tail feathers in great detail, but also body plumage and feathers along the hind limbs…(which are) similar to the feather ‘trousers’ found in many modern birds of prey.”

However, unlike modern birds of prey, the early bird may not have been able to fly. Both the tail feathers and the wing feathers indicate that the Archaeopteryx could fly, but the symmetrical hind limb feathers indicate that it could not.

“There are a number of indications that Archaeopteryx was capable of aerial locomotion, but just how well it could fly remains debated,” Rauhut said. He added that researchers are unsure if it was a non-avian dinosaur or a bird.

Evidence has pointed to the Archaeopteryx following the same evolutionary pattern as birds, however. The evidence also suggests that both the early bird and its predecessors were bright and flashy. Like modern birds, the flashy colors were most likely used in displays, such as for mating.

Although the quill-like contour feathers were most likely used for colorful displays, the proto-feathers probably evolved for regulating body temperature.

“Once present, these feathers could then be adapted for many other functions, such as balance during fast running, protecting and shading the eggs during breeding, and flight,” Rauhut said

Lawrence Witmer, a professor of anatomy and paleontology at Ohio University, added, “When you combine the new information from Archaeopteryx with what we see in other bird-like dinosaurs and dinosaur-like birds, the picture that emerges is that maybe (quilled) feathers evolved more as ornaments for display and were later co-opted by evolution for flight … maybe multiple times. I think the authors make a good case. The display argument is very compelling.”

Source: Discovery News



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