Research reveals earliest flight-related molting strategy in 150-million-year ancient bird
Flying birds molt their feathers when they are old and worn because they inhibit flight performance, and the molt strategy is typically a sequential molt. Molting is thought to be unorganized in the first feathered dinosaurs because they had yet to evolve flight, so determining how molting evolved can lead to better understanding of flight origins.
However, evidence of the transition to modern molting strategies is scarce in the fossil record. Recently, Research Assistant Professor Dr. Michael PITTMAN from the Research Division for Earth and Planetary Science, as well as Vertebrate Palaeontology Laboratory, at the Faculty of Science of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), Thomas G KAYE of the Foundation for Scientific Advancement (Arizona, U.S.) and William R WAHL of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center (Wyoming, U.S.), jointly discovered the earliest record of feather molting from the famous early fossil bird Archaeopteryx found in southern Germany in rocks that used to be tropical lagoons ~150 million years ago. The findings were published in Communications Biology.
Archaeopteryx molting strategy used to preserve maximum flight performance
The most common molt strategy in modern birds is a sequential molt, where feathers are lost from both wings at the same time in a symmetrical pattern. The sequence of feather loss follows two different strategies: The first strategy is a numerically sequential molt where feathers are lost in numerical order and is the most common among passerines birds, also known as songbirds and perching birds; the second strategy is a center-out strategy where a center feather is lost first, and then subsequent feathers are shed outwards from this center point; this is more common in non-passerine birds such as falcons. This strategy minimizes the size of the aerodynamic hole in the wing, which allows falcons to better maintain their flight performance during the molt for hunting.
Laser-Stimulated Fluorescence imaging co-developed at HKU revealed feather sheaths on the Thermopolis specimen of Archaeopteryx that are otherwise invisible under white light. "We found feather sheaths mirrored on both wings. These sheaths are separated by one feather and are not in numerical sequential order. This indicates that Archaeopteryx used a sequential center-out molting strategy, which is used in living falcons to preserve maximum flight performance," said Kaye. This strategy was therefore already present at the earliest origins of flight.
"The center-out molting strategy existed in early flyers and would have been a very welcome benefit because of their otherwise poor flight capabilities. They would have appreciated any flight advantage they could obtain," said Pittman. "This discovery provides important insights into how and when birds refined their early flight capabilities before the appearance of iconic but later flight-related adaptations like a keeled breastbone (sternum), fused tail tip (pygostyle) and the triosseal canal of the shoulder," added Pittman.
This study is part of a larger long-term project by Pittman and Kaye and their team of collaborators to better understand the origins of flight.