The Wednesday Post (19/5/10)

The paleontological world was turned upside-down recently when some researchers determined that Archaeopteryx (literally meaning ancient wing in Greek) could not have supported its own weight in flapping flight!

Now that you have picked your jaws up off the floor…

Maybe nobody finds this as amazing as I do but this was always my favorite dinosaur. Back when I went through dinosaur phase, like all boys I know, but I always gravitated to this one.

Later I found out that as it was discovered two years after the publication of On the Origin of Species it became a central piece of evidence for the evolutionary theory as it was able to viewed as both a late dinosaur and an early bird crossover.

Anyways, Robert Nudds from the University of Manchester and Gareth Dyke from University College Dublin found that despite similarities in the layout of the feathers compared to modern bird (two asymmetrical vanes coming off a central rachis) the feathers were much thinner than what you would expect from a modern bird of a similar size. This means that if Archaeopteryx had tried flapping flight its feathers would have buckled under the pressure.

This is hardly a new idea but it is the final nail in the coffin. Previously it had been pointed out that Archaeopteryx lacked a bony (boney?) breastbone where the flight muscles attach in modern birds and that the shoulder joint was unable to allow a full ROM (Range of Motion for those playing at home) to get a big enough upstroke.

Instead of active flying these ancient bird-like dinosaurs could only glide and perhaps flap intermittently for a little extra thrust.

As much as it upsets me to think of these feathered dinosaurs being confined to the ground at lot more often than I would have imagined it also intrigues me. What prompts wings to evolve and become so sophisticated before the ability to fly? If there are any evolutionary biologists out there who can explain this to me I would love for you to leave your ideas in the comments.

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5 Comments

Filed under James' Corner

5 responses to “The Wednesday Post (19/5/10)

  1. Jillian

    I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but as for the question of how gliding can be useful–have you ever tried to catch a chicken over uneven terrain? (Also, feathers are warm.)

    • I think your right think about it terms of predator evasion but there were already other wings capable of flight, membranous bat like wings. I know there isn’t a ‘choice’ of wings but there are generally common solutions to common problems.
      Again, warmth is another advantage but fur works too. I’m sure there is an answer I can’t think of in my caffine addelded state but it’s not coming to me.

      • Mae

        Lets use an example, sight. How could you go from coral to a fish with eyes to see!?

        Well, half of an eye is better than no eye. A worms has cells which are sensitive to light which they use. It is not true sight, but it is better than nothing.

        Organisms don’t evolve with any goals in mind (like sight or flying). There was a recent paper in Nature which made that case that feathers were for warmth. Yes, fur may be better, but an organism doesn’t consider that. You don’t look at a prehistoric mouse and decide that your species is going to develop fur over then next million years!

        So feathers were first used for warmth, which gave birds a great advantage over reptiles as they didn’t have to rely on the sun. (cold blooded and all) After some unknown sequence of events birds began to glide. Its not flight, but its better than nothing.

        There is an idea called “tree-down” for how birds developed true flight. They began sort of like flying squirrels. From a tree gliding allows them to get to food and evade predators, which is a great advantage. The birds that glided the best passed the most genes until they were gliding so well, we call it flight.

  2. Penny

    Sweet flying dinosaur!

  3. @ Mae
    Thanks!
    I had gone back and thought about this recently but never got around to really explaining here. Now I don’t have to 🙂

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