A fully feathered fossil of the dinosaur-like bird Archaeopteryx is ruffling scientists’ understanding of what drove early feather evolution, scientists report July 2 in Nature.
Archaeopteryx was one of the earliest birds, spanning the evolutionary gap between feathered dinosaurs and modern birds. The flightless fowl roamed 150 million years ago during the Jurassic period and grew to the size of a well-fed pigeon.
Paleontologist Christian Foth of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and colleagues examined a recently unearthed Archaeopteryx fossil, only the 11th known specimen. While Archaeopteryx is known for its feathers, the well-preserved fossil has quill-like feathers not only on the wings and tail but also on its body and legs.
The team compared the fossil’s feather layout to the distribution of feathers on other fossils, including both dinosaurs and early birds, and found a surprising amount of variation between species. The researchers say this range of feather patterns implies that many different feather uses, such as insulation and mating displays, drove the evolution of early plumage. Only later were feathers repurposed for flight, the team concludes.