November 28, 2012
How did feathered dinosaurs take to the air? Paleontologists have been investigating and debating this essential aspect of avian evolution for over a century. Indeed, there have been almost as many ideas as they have been experts, envisioning scenarios of dinosaurs gliding through trees, theropods trapping insects with their feathery wings and even aquatic Iguanodon flapping primitive flippers as flight precursors (I didn’t say that all the ideas were good ones). The biomechanical abilities of bird ancestors and their natural history has always been at the center of the debate, and a new Current Biology paper adds more fuel to the long-running discussion.
At present, hypotheses for the origin of avian flight typically fall into one of two categories. Either bird ancestors accrued the adaptations necessary for flight on the ground and, through evolutionary happenstance, were eventually able to take off, or small tree-dwelling dinosaurs used their feathery coats to glide between trees and, eventually, flapped their way into a flying lifestyle. There are variations on both themes, but feathers and the characteristic avian flight stroke are at the core of any such scenario. In the case of the new paper, Yale University paleontologist Nicholas Longrich and colleagues draw from the plumage of early bird Archaeopteryx and the troodontid Anchiornis to examine how feathers changed as dinosaurs started to fly.
In modern flying birds, Longrich and coauthors point out, the wing arrangement typically consists of “long, asymmetrical flight feathers overlain by short covert feathers.” This pattern creates a stable airfoil but also lets the flight feathers separate a little during the upstroke of a wing beat, therefore reducing drag. When the paleontologists examined the fossilized wings of Archaeopteryx and Anchiornis, they found different feather arrangements that would have constrained the flight abilities of the Jurassic dinosaurs.
Both prehistoric creatures had long covert feathers layered on top of the flight feathers. Anchiornis, in particular, appeared to have an archaic wing form characterized by layers of short, symmetrical flight feathers and similarly shaped coverts. Archaeopteryx showed more specialization between the flight feathers and the coverts but still did not have a wing just like that of a modern bird. As a result, Longrich and collaborators hypothesize, both arrangements would have stabilized the wing at the cost of increased drag at low speeds, making it especially difficult for Anchiornis and Archaeopteryx to take off. As an alternative, the researchers suggest that these dinosaurs might have been parachuters who jumped into the air from trees, which might hint that “powered flight was preceded by arboreal parachuting and gliding.”
The trick is determining whether Anchiornis and Archaeopteryx actually represent the form of bird ancestors, or whether the dinosaurs, like Microraptor, were independent experiments in flight evolution. At the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference in Raleigh, North Carolina last month, flight expert Michael Habib quipped that all that was needed to make dromaeosaurs aerially competent was the addition of feathers. If Habib is right, and I think he is, then there could have been multiple evolutionary experiments in flying, gliding, wing-assisted-incline-running and other such activities. There’s no reason to think that flight evolved only once in a neat, clean march of ever-increasing aerodynamic perfection. Evolution is messy, and who knows how many ultimately failed variations there were among flight-capable dinosaurs?
The three-step Anchiornis-Archaeopteryx-modern bird scenario of wing evolution fits our expectations of what a stepwise evolutionary pattern would look like, but, as the authors of the new paper point out, shifting evolutionary trees currently confound our ability to know what represents the ancestral bird condition and what characterized a more distant branch of the feathered dinosaur family tree. We need more feathery fossils to further investigate and test this hypothesis, as well as additional biomechanical and paleoecological information to determine whether such dinosaurs really took off from trees. We must take great care in distinguishing between what an organism could do and what it actually did, and with so much up in the air, the debate on the origin of flight will undoubtedly continue for decades to come.
Longrich, N., Vinther, J., Meng, Q., Li, Q., Russell, A. 2012. Primitive wing feather arrangement in Archaeopteryx lithographica and Anchiornis huxleyi. Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.09.052
October 11, 2012
How dinosaurs took to the air is one of the longest-running debates in paleontology. Ever since the first skeleton of Archaeopteryx was discovered in 1861, researchers have wondered what the archaic bird might tell us about how flight evolved and how the feathery creature connected its reptilian ancestors with modern birds. Even now, when we know that birds are a feathered dinosaur lineage, the origins of flight remain a contentious issue constrained by the available fossil evidence and our ability to reconstruct how prehistoric creatures moved.
Before paleontologists confirmed that birds are dinosaurs, though, various researchers came up with speculative schemes to explain how birds originated. Naturalist William Beebe, for one, proposed that bird ancestors started off as parachuting reptiles that benefited from expanded scales (his conception of protofeathers). Other scientists came up with their own ideas, imagining everything from seagoing protobirds to gliding reptiles.
When ornithologist Colin Pennycuick wrote his paper “Mechanical Constraints on the Evolution of Flight” in 1986, however, paleontologists were warming to the idea that Archaeopteryx spanned the evolutionary space between living birds and dinosaurs like Deinonychus. This narrowed down the list of early flight scenarios to hotly debated “ground up” or “trees down” hypotheses for the origin of flight, and raised the possibility that feathers evolved among non-avian dinosaurs first. Within these debates, Pennycuick put forward his own idiosyncratic proposal.
Pennycuick believed that birds took to the air by way of the trees. Bird ancestors progressively shrunk in size over time, he believed, and started gliding before they could actually fly. He couldn’t envision that birds evolved from a running, leaping ancestor, as other researchers suggested. For Pennycuick, flight was a gradual extension of gliding.
But what did the ancestor of Archaeopteryx look like? Pennycuick assumed that feathers and flight were closely tied together–something that is not true at all and had already been pointed out by paleontologist John Ostrom in his work on bird origins. Feathers are important for display and insulation and were only later co-opted for flight. All the same, Pennycuick needed a gliding–but featherless–ancestor for Archaeopteryx to make his idea work. So he conjured something really weird.
Pennycuick was puzzled by the clawed fingers of Archaeopteryx. Why would a bird have differentiated fingers? Rather than look at the fingers as just a holdover from dinosaurian ancestry, Pennycuick assumed that they had some kind of flight function. The fingers of Archaeopteryx, he proposed, “could have supported a small, batlike hand-wing.” Such a structure would have been inherited from the featherless ancestor of Archaeopteryx, he proposed, “constituting the main wing area in the stage before feathers were developed.”
Where the feathers of Archaeopteryx came from, Pennycuick couldn’t say. He mused on the need for feathers in the transition from gliding to flight, but he didn’t offer an explanation for how feathers evolved. He only mentioned that “The development of down feathers as thermal insulation is a separate process that may or may not have preceded the development of flight feathers.”
The fuzzy dinosaur Sinosauropteryx proved Pennycuick wrong a decade later. Paleontologists like Ostrom and artists such as Gregory S. Paul had long suspected that feathers were a widespread trait among bird-like theropod dinosaurs, and a flood of exceptional fossils has shown that feathers and their precursors have a deep, deep history. Dinofuzz, or structurally similar body coverings, might even go back to the root of the Dinosauria. How evolutionary forces molded those adornments, however, and what drove the evolution of flight feathers, remain as aggravatingly contentious as ever.
[Hat-tip to paleontologist Victoria Arbour for bringing this paper to my attention]
Pennycuick, C. 1986. Mechanical Constraints on the Evolution of Flight. Memoirs of the California Academy of Sciences. 8, 83-98