Feathered dinosaurs might not still be the new boys in town in the fossil world, but there’s still a tonne of cool research being done on them. One of the main fields is trying to figure out if different species were capable of powered flight, like in most modern birds. The recent finding of Aurornis xui appears to have confined the ability to fly just to a single feathered lineage, the one leading to modern birds, but how do we figure out whether they could fly or not?
The origin of bird flight is one of the greatest stories evolution has ever told us in the history of life on this planet. To imagine how organisms that once ran around on the ground have descendants that soar through the skies is truly phenomenal, and represents a truly great leap in increasing the awesomeness of these animals. The secret of how it came about though is hidden away in the fossil record, with the mysterious tale ever-shifting as our understanding of early birds and feather precursors evolved.
Two new feathered dinosaur articles appeared in the latest edition of Nature Communications; one on gender identification in a well-known theropod (the meat noshing ones), and the subject of a forthcoming blog post, and another on a new feathered fiend from, surprise surprise, China.
I normally really don’t like writing about theropods, especially of the feathered variety, as it just seems like I’m jumping on the bandwagon that they were awesome and every aspect of them needs extensive media coverage. Ok, yeah, they can be pretty cool. But only, for me, in the context of the larger evolutionary patterns that they can reveal to us, such as the evolution of feathers and flight. Each new fossil doesn’t exactly transform our knowledge of this, but they do help us to refine our theories to a certain extent; whether or not that’s worthy of excessive media coverage and Nature publications, is not my judgement to make (
no, it’s not).
Archaeopteryx lithogaphica is probably the most iconic dinosaur ever. When it was first discovered, it was heralded as the holy grail of palaeontological findings, as it helped to consolidate the evolutionary continuum between theropod dinosaurs and modern birds. What it also represents though, is an example of the evolution of scientific thought through time. Palaeontologists, mechanists and developmental biologists have long puzzled about where exactly this ancient-winged half-bird half-dinosaur fits into the evolutionary tree of life. Perhaps of equal importance, is what it can tell us about the evolution of one of the most extraordinary biological innovations of all time – the development of wings and powered flight.