Four Wings? Extra Feathered Limbs May Have Helped Early Birds Fly

By | March 18, 2013

It’s now generally accepted that the large leg feathers of the Microraptor were useful in flight, but a nagging question long remained unanswered: Did birds go through a “four-winged” stage, or were dinosaurs like the Microraptor merely an evolutionary side-branch?The new study, which published in the journal Science on Friday, has provided the first “solid evidence” that at least some ancestors of modern birds not only had four wings for a time, but also very large feathers on the hind limbs — a feature that hints strongly at flight.”If an animal has big feathers on its legs and feet, it’s definitely something that’s not good for fast running,” Xing Xu, a paleontologist and one of the authors of the study, told New Scientist.Moreover, Thomas Holtz, a paleontologist at the University of Maryland who was not involved in the study, told NBC News, “the fact that Xu and his team found evidence of leg feathers in a few different species of different sizes [indicates] that leg plumage was fairly common.””We’re really seeing how widespread this condition was,” he added. “It’s really clarifying that it isn’t a weird side branch.”Still, scientists warn that much remains unknown about the feathered hind limbs: What were the feathers used for? Were they aerodynamic, helping the birds to fly and/or steer, or were they perhaps only for protection and insulation? For example, some modern birds, such as certain species of chickens, still have downy legs — but the extra feathers aren’t used for flight.The two-dimensional nature of the fossils made it difficult for the scientists to “reconstruct the precise location and orientation of the leg feathers,” The New York Times notes. …

via Four-Winged Birds? Extra Feathered Limbs May Have Helped Early Birds In Flight, Study Suggests PHOTO.

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