Ancient Birds Flew On All-Fours

September 26, 2006

The earliest known ancestor of modern-day birds took to the skies by gliding from trees using primitive feathered wings on their arms and legs, according to new research by a University of Calgary paleontologist. In a paper published in the journal Paleobiology, Department of Biological Sciences PhD student Nick Longrich challenges the idea that birds began flying by taking off from the ground while running and shows that the dinosaur-like bird Archaeopteryx soared using wing-like feathers on all of its limbs.

"The discussions about the origins of avian flight have been dominated by the so-called 'ground up' and 'trees down' hypotheses," Longrich said. "This paper puts forward some of the strongest evidence yet that birds descended from arboreal parachuters and gliders, similar to modern flying squirrels."

The first fossil of the Jurassic-era dinosaur Archaeopteryx lithographica was discovered in Germany in 1861, two years after Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution in On The Origin of Species. Since then, eight additional specimens have been unearthed and Archaeopteryx is considered the best evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs since it had both feathers and a bird-like wishbone, along with classic reptilian features of a long bony tail, claws and teeth.

Although scientists immediately noticed feather-like structures on the hind limbs, they were dismissed as insulating body feathers that didn't play a role in the animal's flight. It wasn't until several four-winged dinosaurs in China were described in 2002 that researchers began to re-examine Archaeopteryx's legs.

"The idea of a multi-winged Archaeopteryx has been around for more than a century, but it hasn't received much attention," Longrich said. "I believe one reason for this is that people tend to see what they want or expect to see. Everybody knows that birds don't have four wings, so we overlooked them even when they were right under our noses."

Under the supervision of professor Anthony Russell, Longrich examined Archaeopteryx fossils and determined that the dinosaur's leg feathers have an aerodynamic structure that imply its rear limbs likely acted as lift-generating "winglets" that played a significant role in flight.

Nick Longrich's paper, "Structure and function of hindlimb feathers in Archaeopteryx lithographica" appears in the September, 2006 issue of the journal Paleobiology.

Copyright 2006 by Space Daily, Distributed by United Press International

Explore further: Birds' unique skulls linked to young dinosaur brains

Related Stories

Feathers too weak for early bird flight

May 13, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The evolution of flight took longer than previously thought with the ancestors of modern birds “rubbish” at flying, if they flew at all, according to a Manchester scientist.

Early birds had an old-school version of wings

November 21, 2012

In comparison to modern birds, the prehistoric Archaeopteryx and bird-like dinosaurs before them had a more primitive version of a wing. The findings, reported on November 21 in Current Biology, lend support to the notion ...

Earliest toothless bird found

December 10, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new species of bird from the Cretaceous period in China has been identified. It had toothless upper and lower jaws, and provides significant information on the diversification in the evolution of birds ...

Recommended for you

Ancestor of sea reptile super-predators found in Germany

September 15, 2017

A new species of extinct sea monster from the Early Jurassic has been identified by a team of German and Swedish researchers. The fossilized bones were found in a clay pit near the city of Bielefeld in Germany. The findings ...

Research on big ears, crocodile gambling wins Ig Nobels

September 14, 2017

Scientists who discovered that old men really do have big ears, that playing the didgeridoo helps relieve sleep apnea and that handling crocodiles can influence gambling decisions are among this year's recipients of the Ig ...

Tomb of early classic Maya ruler found in Guatemala

September 14, 2017

The tomb of a Maya ruler excavated this summer at the Classic Maya city of Waka' in northern Guatemala is the oldest royal tomb yet to be discovered at the site, the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Guatemala has announced.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.