The origin of this wonderful mechanism is one of evolution's most durable mysteries. In 1861, just two years after Darwin published Origin of Species, quarry workers in Germany unearthed spectacular fossils of a crow-size bird, dubbed Archaeopteryx, that lived about 150 million years ago. It had feathers and other traits of living birds but also vestiges of a reptilian past, such as teeth in its mouth, claws on its wings, and a long, bony tail. Like fossils of whales with legs, Archaeopteryx seemed to capture a moment in a critical evolutionary metamorphosis. "It is a grand case for me," Darwin confided to a friend.
The case would have been even grander if paleontologists could have found a more ancient creature endowed with more primitive feathers—something they searched for in vain for most of the next century and a half. In the meantime, other scientists sought to illuminate the origin of feathers by examining the scales of modern reptiles, the closest living relatives of birds. Both scales and feathers are flat. So perhaps the scales of the birds' ancestors had stretched out, generation after generation. Later their edges could have frayed and split, turning them into the first true feathers.
It made sense too that this change occurred as an adaptation for flight. Imagine the ancestors of birds as small, scaly, four-legged reptiles living in forest canopies, leaping from tree to tree. If their scales had grown longer, they would have provided more and more lift, which would have allowed the protobirds to glide a little farther, then a little farther still. Only later might their arms have evolved into wings they could push up and down, transforming them from gliders to true powered fliers. In short, the evolution of feathers would have happened along with the evolution of flight.
This feathers-led-to-flight notion began to unravel in the 1970s, when Yale University paleontologist John Ostrom noted striking similarities between the skeletons of birds and terrestrial dinosaurs called theropods, a group that includes marquee monsters like Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor. Clearly, Ostrom argued, birds were the living descendants of theropods. Still, many known theropods had big legs, short arms, and stout, long tails—hardly the anatomy one would expect on a creature leaping from trees. Other paleontologists argued that birds did not evolve from dinosaurs—rather, their similarities derived from a shared common ancestor deeper in the past.