National Geographic News
A photo of a fossil of a Archaeopteryx.

An Archaeopteryx fossil retains imprints of its feathers.

Photograph by Helmut Tischlinger

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published July 2, 2014

A beautifully preserved fossil Archaeopteryx, the flightless bird from the age of the dinosaurs, adds to the evidence that feathers evolved well ahead of the ability to fly.

Long seen as one of the first birds, Archaeopteryx has been joined by a flock of fellow feathered dinosaurs discovered in recent decades. (Related: "Archaeopteryx's Evolutionary Humiliation Continues.")

About 150 million years old, the new fossil disclosed Wednesday in the journal Nature reveals the iconic birdlike dinosaur sported long feathers from head to foot. Earlier fossils showed such feathers on only its wings and tail.

These so-called pennaceous feathers are the long-shafted ones birds use to fly today, distinct from the downy ones that act as insulation. The new Archaeopteryx fossil, says the study's senior author, Oliver Rauhut of Germany's Bavarian State Collections of Palaeontology and Geology in Munich, gives scientists a glimpse into the evolution of flight.

"The only thing we can say with some certainty is that [feathers] did not primarily evolve for flight, as it was long believed," Rauhut says.

An illustration of the Archaeopteryx.
Art: Samantha Welker. Source: Oliver W. M. Rauhut

Early Bird

About the size of a raven, Archaeopteryx (ARK-ee-OP-tur-ix) was first discovered in fossil form in 1861 at a limestone quarry in Germany. Only 11 fossils are known, including the latest one which came from the same quarry.

"The discovery of a new specimen of Archaeopteryx with such a beautiful preservation of feathers is truly exciting," paleontologist Zhou Zhonghe of China's Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing writes in an email.

Many dinosaurs belonging to the two-legged theropod family (the same lineage as Tyrannosaurus rex) had feathers, scholars now know, and debate has turned to how birds developed flight. Knowing pennaceous feathers covered the flightless Archaeopteryx adds to the evidence that birds started out close to the ground. (Related: "New Candidate for World's First Bird.")

The new fossil retains traces of the feathers adorning Archaeopteryx in imprints in the fine-grained limestone surrounding the fossil's bones. (The specimen's skull was crushed, but much of the rest of its skeleton is intact.) Feathers even covered the creature's legs like trousers.

The feathers on the fossil's wings were shorter than expected based on comparison with earlier fossils. That adds to the certainty that it wasn't much of a flier.

"It probably didn't fly like a bird at all—maybe like a turkey if it really tried," says Mark Norell, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York who has studied feathered dinosaur fossils.

Telltale Plumage

A reasonable argument could be made that the long feathers evolved from the insulating ones seen on other feathered dinosaurs, Norell says. Thereafter they could have served many uses before birds ever took to the air, from lining nests to camouflage. "It's very hard to say feathers evolved for any one reason," he says.

The study's authors suggest that pennaceous feathers primarily served as a display in early bird species, as the tail of the peacock does today to attract mates. The feathers evolved in ancestors of Archaeopteryx and other early flightless birds, they suggest. They also evolved rapidly across the family of dinosaurs to which Archaeopteryx belonged.

Watch: "Missing Link" Dinosaur: Feather Color Determined in Earlier Study

Once pennaceous feathers had evolved, early feathered dinosaurs could have relied on them to eventually fly, Rauhut says, "including the possibility that flight evolved more than once in advanced predatory dinosaurs."

Essentially, the study team is arguing for a "ground up" evolution of feathered flight, with flapping offering an advantage to early flightless birds (perhaps in escaping predators as wild turkeys do today) that led later species to take to the air. The team is arguing against a "trees down" argument, where gliding by early feathered birds drove the evolution of flight.

While he agrees that pennaceous feathers served as displays in early birds, Jakob Vinther of the United Kingdom's University of Bristol sees at least some early birds as gliders, with feathered feet that would have helped them steer in air, for example. "I doubt their evolutionary scheme," Vinther says.

Zhou is similarly skeptical. "It is indeed very difficult to separate out a single fitness advantage to explain the origin or proliferation of feathers," he writes by email. "In fact, in most cases, it is a mixture of more than one selection force that drives the evolution of feathers and results in the diversity of feather distributions during the transition from dinosaurs to birds."

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Chris Brantley
Chris Brantley

The flaw in this story is that it uses Archaeopteryx to promote the theory that feathers had a non-flight origin. Archaeopteryx's flight feathers were asymmetrical. So whether it was a poor flier, or a descendant of a flier, its feathers were unmistakably designed for flight. A better choice would be an animal whose feathers show no particular purpose.       


Is it not possible that there were species that could fly prior to Archaeopteryx that just haven't been discovered yet? Just because this one didn't fly doesn't mean every dinosaur preceding it couldn't. There are a lot of feathered species right now that couldn't fly either but they weren't necessarily older than the ones that do. 

Dave Surace
Dave Surace

Craig Hill....I agree on most of your points. But I believe that feathers were evolved for insulation from the harsh elements. As evolution continued, we are not certain of weather patterns and maybe the feathers eventually sprouted to keep them alive. What a great subject to discuss. This is one of my favorite dinosaurs.

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

"It probably didn't fly like a bird at all—maybe like a turkey if it really tried,"

I believe in you archaeopteryx, you can do it!

Ali B.
Ali B.

so dinosaurs never disappeared, they just evolved into birds

craig hill
craig hill

This poor Zhou does not understand what drives evolution: The ability to survive PAST MATURITY so the species can reproduce, and the new, evolved sexual attractions in either of the sexes which spurs on that reproduction. Feathers sprouted probably as a few at first, were attractive to its mates, usually the females which need less attraction for the male, and that process led relatively rapidly to full-blown feathered reptiles which caused an explosion of births of those feather-bearing couples. Flight came after, probably, as noted, starting as gliding from perch to tree.

Also, nesting in higher places due to that gliding allowed for fewer predators of the eggs of the gliders than those without feathers on the ground.

Voila, birds. Which taught us how to sing, which was the beginning of speech. Think it through.

Daniel Braswell
Daniel Braswell

@Chris Brantley Natural selection doesn't design. That implies there being a designer. It's more scientifically correct to say that Archaeopteryx evolved in such a way that it was suited, or ill-suited, for flight.

Chris Brantley
Chris Brantley

I should have worded it "Archaeopteryxs 'wing' feathers" not 'flight'. Asymmetry infers that it was used for flight

Ed Uber
Ed Uber

@A S 2 things: 

1 "flightless' and "probably didn't fly like a bird at all" in this article mean that it may have been able to fly like a turkey. It doesn't mean "couldn't fly" in any normal sense of the phrase.

2 I think you hit the nail on the head. There have been flightless birds at every step of avian history, as far back as flightless birds could be surely identified. There is no reason to believe this pattern only started AFTER the forelimbs became useless for anything but flying. I think all dinosaurs with semi-lunate carpal blocks, which allow wing folding, should be considered secondarilly flightless, unless evidence is found to the contrary. Furthermore, dinosaurs groups such as dromaeosaurids, which have traditionally been considered flightless lineages, could well be repeated flightless offshoots of a flying lineage instead.

Dennis Gilman
Dennis Gilman

@Ali B. Dinosaurs disappeared without leaving any descendants.  Birds did not descend from dinosaurs.  The evidence does not point in that direction.

Marc Ri
Marc Ri

@Ali B. same thougt. interesting! Through flight, they'd be able to find food even though earth was a mess for a long time while land animals died because of their limited range.

Chris Brantley
Chris Brantley

Thanks but no thanks on the semantics lesson Daniel Braswell. I like how i worded it, thanks


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