Birds' Feathers First Evolved Before Flight, Researchers Say

July 6, 2014 12:39 PM

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The bladed, quill-like feathers of modern birds are essential for flight, and over millions of years they have become highly specialized for this purpose. But this may not be the reason they first evolved, say researchers studying an unusually complete fossil of the world’s first bird, Archaeopteryx. Instead, the team believes birds first grew these feathers for other purposes, such as insulation or mating display. The discovery raises the intriguing prospect that flight may have developed multiple times in the ancestors of birds.

Modern birds have many different types of feathers. The most important are down feathers, the small, fluffy ones that keep the bird warm, and “pennaceous” feathers used for flight. These are stiffer, with a thick stalk and a blade on either side. Many paleontologists have argued that pennaceous feat...

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