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    Ancient Feathers Reveal Continuity in Flight Evolution

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    Feathers from dinosaurs and ancient birds found in the fossil record have provided groundbreaking insights into the evolution of flight, challenging long-held perceptions about the protein composition and developmental pathways of these once-majestic creatures.

    New research suggests that the building blocks essential for flight in modern birds were present over a hundred million years ago.

    Close up profile view of juvenile Golden Eagle with beak open

    A recent study, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, has turned the paleontological community’s understanding of feather evolution on its head.

    A majestic red kite flying through blue skies above Reading

    Using advanced X-ray and infrared light analyses, scientists have detected traces of corneous beta-proteins (CBPs), vital for the strength required in flight feathers, in fossils of a nonavian dinosaur named Sinornithosaurus and an early bird known as Confuciusornis.

    a large bird of prey . The Falcon, ready to hunt, spread its wings against the gray cloudy sky.

    Lead study author Tiffany Slater, a postdoctoral researcher, remarked on the significance of these findings: “The chemistry of modern-day feathers is a lot more ancient than we previously thought.

    Stork in the Nest

    Our research helps rewrite the narrative and shows that the very basic building blocks that are required for powered flight were present at least 125 million years ago.”

    Previously, scientists had thought ancient animal feathers were primarily composed of alpha proteins, a weaker counterpart to CBPs.

    However, this notion has been dismissed as an artifact of fossilization, according to Slater: “The dinosaur feathers we analyzed show that they mostly consist of beta proteins.”

    Moving from scales to feathers, dinosaurs underwent a remarkable transformation. An evolutionary link between birds and dinosaurs, Archaeopteryx, once stood alone as the half-bird, half-dinosaur.

    Michael Benton, a paleontologist, suggests that “Archaeopteryx seemed to emerge fully fledged with the characteristics of modern birds,” but recent discoveries indicate that avian traits evolved incrementally over a longer timescale.

    Miniaturization has played a pivotal role in bird evolution, with theropod dinosaurs shrinking over time to become conducive to flight. The rapid diminution suggests that smaller size was advantageous, potentially opening up new habitats and avenues for survival.

    The removal of certain structures, like snouts, may have been instrumental for other critical developments, such as the beak. According to Arkhat Abzhanov, a biologist, “Modern birds evolved a pair of fingers on the face.”

    A huge flock of pigeons on Kathmandu street near the Buddhist stupa

    The study of a new dinosaur species, Wulong bohaiensis, or “the dancing dragon,” adds a layer of complexity to our understanding of the maturation of these creatures.

    Side view of a Carrion Crow, Corvus corone, isolated on white
    Side view of a Carrion Crow, Corvus corone, isolated on white

    Ashley Poust, a postdoctoral researcher, says, “The specimen has feathers on its limbs and tail that we associate with adult birds, but it had other features that made us think it was a juvenile.” This finding indicates that dinosaurs may have developed mature-looking feathers before reaching adulthood, a stark contrast to modern birds.

    Sea Eagle
    Sea Eagle

    The Jehol biota, where Wulong was discovered, was a hotbed of feathered life, providing a unique window into the past. “There was a lot of flying, gliding, and flapping around these ancient lakes,” explains Poust.

    Relevant articles:
    125 million-year-old dinosaur feathers were remarkably similar to modern bird feathers, analysis reveals, Live Science, Sep 27, 2023
    How Dinosaurs Shrank and Became Birds, scientificamerican.com
    New feathered dinosaur shows dinosaurs grew up differently from birds, sciencedaily.com
    Dinosaur Feathers: Useful Adaptation, amnh.org

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