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Whatever the original purpose of feathers, they were probably around for millions of years before a single lineage of dinosaurs began to use them for flight. Paleontologists are now carefully studying the closest theropod relatives of birds for clues to how this transition occurred. One of the most revealing is a recently discovered wonder called Anchiornis, more than 150 million years old. The size of a chicken, it had arm feathers with black-and-white portions, creating the spangled pattern you might see on a prize rooster at a county fair. On its head it wore a gaudy rufous crown. In structure, Anchiornis's plumes were nearly identical to flight feathers, except that they were symmetrical rather than asymmetrical. Without a thin, stiff leading edge, they may have been too weak for flight.

What the plumes lacked in strength, however, they made up for in number. Anchiornis had an embarrassment of feathers. They sprouted from its arms, legs, and even its toes. It's possible that sexual selection drove the evolution of this extravagant plumage, much as it drives the evolution of peacock trains today. And just as their long, heavy trains pose a burden to peacocks, the extravagant feathers of Anchiornis may have been a bit of a drag, literally.

Corwin Sullivan and his colleagues at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing have found a way that Anchiornis could have overcome this problem. In the theropods that were closely related to living birds, a particular wristbone was wedge-shaped, allowing them to bend their hands. Anchiornis's wrist bone was so wedge-shaped that it could fold its arms to its sides, keeping its arm feathers off the ground as it walked. Modern birds use a similar bone in flight, drawing their wings toward their bodies during an upstroke. If Sullivan and his colleagues are right, this crucial flight feature evolved long before birds took wing. It's an example of what evolutionary biologists call exaptation: borrowing an old body part for a new job. It now looks like bird flight was made possible by a whole string of such exaptations stretching across millions of years, long before flight itself arose.

The way in which that final transition occurred continues to inspire lively debate. Some scientists argue that feathered dinosaurs evolved flight from the ground up, flapping their feathered arms as they ran. Others challenge this notion, pointing out that the "leg wings" on Anchiornis and other close relatives of birds would have made for very clumsy running. These researchers are reviving the old idea that protobirds used feathers to help them leap from trees, glide, and finally fly.

Ground up, trees down—why not both? Flight did not evolve in a two-dimensional world, argues Ken Dial, a flight researcher at the University of Montana-Missoula. Dial has shown that in many species a chick flaps its rudimentary wings to gain traction as it runs from predators up steep inclines, like tree trunks and cliffs. But flapping also helps steady the chick's inevitable return to lower terrain. As the young bird matures, such controlled descent gradually gives way to powered flight. Perhaps, says Dial, the path the chick takes in development retraces the one its lineage followed in evolution—winging it, so to speak, until it finally took wing.

Carl Zimmer wrote about carnivorous plants in the March 2010 issue of National Geographic. Robert Clark is a frequent contributor. Xing Lida’s dinosaur books are best sellers in China.
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