Evolution News

New archaeopteryx fossil said to strengthen claim that feathers did not evolve for flight

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The new (11th) specimen of Archaeopteryx/H. Tischlinger

From ScienceDaily:

Predatory dinosaurs (theropods) with body plumage are now known to predate Archaeopteryx, and their feathers probably provided thermal insulation. Advanced species of predatory dinosaurs and primitive birds with feathered forelimbs may have used them as balance organs when running, like ostriches do today. Moreover, feathers could have served useful functions in brooding, camouflage and display. Indeed, the feathers on the tail, wings and hind-limbs most probably fulfilled functions in display, although it is very likely that Archaeopteryx was also capable of flight. “Interestingly, the lateral feathers in the tail of Archaeopteryx had an aerodynamic form, and most probably played an important role in its aerial abilities,” says Foth.

On the basis of their investigation of the plumage of the new fossil, the researchers have been able to clarify the taxonomical relationship between Archaeopteryx and other species of feathered dinosaur. Here, the diversity in form and distribution of the feather tracts is particularly striking. For instance, among dinosaurs that had feathers on their legs, many had long feathers extending to the toes, while others had shorter down-like plumage. “If feathers had evolved originally for flight, functional constraints should have restricted their range of variation. And in primitive birds we do see less variation in wing feathers than in those on the hind-limbs or the tail,” explains Foth.

These observations imply that feathers acquired their aerodynamic functions secondarily: Once feathers had been invented, they could be co-opted for flight. “It is even possible that the ability to fly evolved more than once within the theropods,” says Rauhut. “Since the feathers were already present, different groups of predatory dinosaurs and their descendants, the birds, could have exploited these structures in different ways.” The new results also contradict the theory that powered avian flight evolved from earlier four-winged species that were able to glide.

Something about this does not sound quite right. Feathers can be used for a number of purposes that other structures can also fulfil. But feathers are essential for bird flight. And the researchers believe that Archaeopteryx could in fact fly.

It seems a stretch to insist that feathers were “invented” (the authors’ term) for a purpose other than flight.

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35 Replies to “New archaeopteryx fossil said to strengthen claim that feathers did not evolve for flight

  1. 1
    Mung says:

    This is just silly. Nothing evolves for anything.

    EVO 101

  2. 2
    rhampton7 says:

    Pterosaurs predate Birds by tens of millions of years, so we do know that feathers were not necessary flight.

  3. 3
    leenibus says:

    Hello News,

    Have you ever owned a down jacket, down vest or down sleeping bag? Feathers are superb thermal insulation. The ability to maintain an optimal body temperature would rank fairly high up the list of advantageous survival techniques for many animals.

  4. 4
    News says:

    rhampton7, were pterosaurs flying or gliding?

  5. 5
    News says:

    leenibus, yes, but sheepskin is just as good, as is a fat layer under the skin (a resort of rodents), or digging below the frost line (a resort of reptiles and amphibians). It seems an odd thesis that feathers, which – like sub-frost mud – are “superb thermal insulation” – would accidentally be the way they are and so happen to turn out to be adapted for flight. Strange things happen, but in Darwin’s follower’s world, such strange things seem to happen every day. Which suggests that something isn’t quite right.

  6. 6
    Germanicus says:

    News: very strange things happen indeed, other animals use the skin to fly!

  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:


    feathers acquired their aerodynamic functions secondarily: Once feathers had been invented, they could be co-opted for flight.

    Nonsense. Flight capability is a SYSTEM dependent on several closely interacting FSCO/I rich entities. Not least, flight feathers, which are precision devices. A membrane based flying adaptation is difficult, but it is nowhere near so hard as a feather based one.

    Wallace’s discussion in The World of Life would be a good first point of reference. Yes, co-founder of Evolution as a modern scientific theory. Cf p. 288 here.


  8. 8
    Piotr says:

    Strange things happen, but in Darwin’s follower’s world, such strange things seem to happen every day.

    Bird-like flight abilities evolve every day? I thought feathered critters with the right combination of preadaptations evolved just once, about 160 million years ago.

  9. 9
    Joe says:

    Why just once, Piotr? Eyes have alleged to have evolved many different times. Flight has allegedly evolved several different times.

  10. 10
    inunison says:

    One has to wonder if (in this case unnamed) science writers have basic ability to follow and understand the issues they are writing about.

    Birds (you can call them primitive if you like) predate maniraptorian theropod dinosaurs by 70+ million years, therefore this discussion about first function feather was invented (sic) for, comparing theropod’s plumage with that of Archaeopteryx is really pointless.

    Furthermore, I wish to be able to read these “scientific” articles without design centric language constantly used to describe “blind” material forces.

  11. 11
    News says:

    inunison at 9: “Furthermore, I wish to be able to read these “scientific” articles without design centric language constantly used to describe “blind” material forces.” But sometimes that would mean adopting terminology that makes no sense. This may be a situation verging on that state of affairs.

  12. 12
    humbled says:

    Inunison, I wish to be able to read these “scientific” articles without blind material forces constantly being used to describe processes and systems that are clearly designed.

  13. 13
    ppolish says:

    Feathers were designed for flight duh. Designed for the tall entangled bush time, for tall tree time really.

    How did Dinos get their claws on the design prematurely? I don’t know, sneaky bastards.

  14. 14
    Acartia_bogart says:

    If feathers were “designed” for flight, why do penguins, ostriches, emus and other flightless birds have them?

  15. 15
    ppolish says:

    a_b, this forum was designed for intelligent debate, yet you & me are here. You can be the ostrich.

  16. 16
    inunison says:

    Acartia_bogart @14

    To follow the logic of the quoted article answer is: “because flightless birds had chosen not to invent that aerodynamic function.”

  17. 17
    kairosfocus says:


    Flightless birds with atrophied flight features — though penguins fly underwater thank you — are quite easily understandable.

    The material issue is the ORIGIN of the integrated aerofoil, power and control systems for flight, using feathers. Flight feathers are astonishingly complex structures with oodles of FSCO/I. For which there is exactly one vera causa plausible explanation, design.

    Let me clip Wallace, The World of Life, p. 287. ff:

    >> The Marvel and Mystery of Feathers

    Looking at it as a whole, the bird’s wing seems to me
    to be, of all the mere mechanical organs of any living thing, that which most clearly implies the working out of a pre- conceived design in a new and apparently most complex | and difficult manner, yet so as to produce a marvellously
    successful result The idea worked out was to reduce the
    jointed bony framework of the wings to a compact minimum
    of size and maximum of strength in proportion to the
    muscular power employed ; to enlarge the breastbone so as
    to give room for greatly increased power of pectoral muscles ; and to construct that part of the wing used in flight in such a manner as to combine great strength with extreme lightness and the most perfect flexibility. In order to produce this more perfect instrument for flight the plan of a continuous membrane, as in the flying reptiles (whose origin was
    probably contemporaneous with that of the earliest birds)
    and flying mammals, to be developed at a much later period,
    was rejected, and its place was taken by a series of broad
    overlapping oars or vanes, formed by a central rib of
    extreme strength, elasticity, and lightness, with a web on
    each side made up of myriads of parts or outgrowths so
    wonderfully attached and interlocked as to form a self-
    supporting, highly elastic structure of almost inconceivable
    delicacy, very easily pierced or ruptured by the impact of
    solid substances, yet able to sustain almost any amount of
    air-pressure without injury. And even when any part of
    this delicate web is injured by separating the adjacent barbs
    from each other, they are so wonderfully constructed that
    the pressure and movement of other feathers over them
    causes them to unite together as firmly as before ; and this
    is done not by any process of growth, or by any adhesive
    exudation, but by the mechanical structure of the delicate
    hooked lamellae of which they are composed.

    The two illustrations here given (Figs. 108, 109) show
    two of the adjacent fibre-like parts (barbs) of which the
    web of a bird’s feather is composed, and which are most
    clearly shown in the wing-feathers. The slender barbs or
    ribs of which the web of the feather is made up can be
    best understood by stripping off a portion of the web and
    separating two of the barbs from the rest. With a good
    lens the structure of the barbs, with their delicate hooked
    barbules interlocking with the bent-out upper margins of the
    barbules beneath them, can be easily seen as in the view
    and section here given. The barbs (B, B in the figures) are |

    elastic, horny plates set close together on each side of
    the midrib of the feather, and pointing obliquely outwards ;
    while the barbules are to the barbs what the barbs are
    to the feather excessively delicate horny plates, which


    FIG. 108. View of a portion of two adjacent Barbs (B, B), looking from
    the Shaft towards the edge of the Feather.
    bd, distal barbules ; bp t proximal barbules.

    FIG. 109. Oblique Section through the Proximal Barbules in a plane parallel

    to the Distal Barbules of the upper Figure.

    Letters as above ; I, 2, 3, barbicels and hamuli of the ventral side of the distal

    barbule ; 4, barbicels of the dorsal side of the same, without hamuli.

    (From Newton’s Dictionary of Birds.)

    also grow obliquely outwards towards the tip of the barb.
    Laterally they touch each other with smooth, glossy surfaces,
    which are almost air-tight, yet allow of such slight motions
    as may be required during use, while remaining interlocked
    with the barbules of the adjoining barb in the manner just
    described. They are the essential elements of the feather,
    on which its value both for flight and as a protective clothing | depends. Even in the smallest wing-feathers they are
    probably a hundred thousand in number, since in the long
    wing-feather of a crane the number is stated by Dr. Hans
    Gadow to be more than a million.

    What are termed the ” contour-feathers ” are those that
    clothe the whole body and limbs of a bird with a garment
    of extreme lightness which is almost completely impervious
    to either cold or heat. These feathers vary greatly in shape
    on different parts of the body, sometimes forming a dense
    velvety covering, as on the head and neck of many species,
    or developed into endless variety of ornament. They fit
    and overlap each other so perfectly, and entangle so much
    air between them, that rarely do birds suffer from cold,
    except when unable to obtain any shelter from violent
    storms or blizzards. Yet, as every single feather is movable
    and erectile, the whole body can be freely exposed to the
    air in times of oppressive heat, or to dry the feathers rapidly
    after bathing or after unusually heavy rain.

    A great deal has been written on the mechanics of a
    bird’s flight, as dependent on the form and curvature of the
    feathers and of the entire wing, the powerful muscular
    arrangements, and especially the perfection of the adjustment
    by which during the rapid down-stroke the combined feathers
    constitute a perfectly air-tight, exceedingly strong, yet highly
    elastic instrument for flight ; while the moment the upward
    motion begins the feathers all turn upon their axes so that
    the air passes between them with hardly any resistance, and
    when they again begin the down-stroke close up automatic-
    ally as air-tight as before. Thus the effective down-strokes
    follow each other so rapidly that, together with the support
    given by the hinder portion of the wings and tail, the
    onward motion is kept up, and the strongest flying birds
    exhibit hardly any undulation in the course they are
    pursuing. But very little is said about the minute structure
    of the feathers themselves, which are what renders perfect
    flight in almost every change of conditions a possibility and
    an actually achieved result.

    But there is a further difference between this instrument
    of flight and all others in nature. It is not, except during
    actual growth, a part of the living organism, but a mechanical | instrument which the organism has built up, and which then
    ceases to form an integral portion of it is, in fact, dead matter.
    Hence, in no part of the fully grown feather is there any
    blood circulation or muscular attachment, except as regards
    the base, which is firmly held by the muscles and tendons
    of the rudimentary hand (fore -limb) of the bird. This
    beautiful and delicate structure is therefore subject to wear
    and tear and to accidental injury, but probably more than
    anything else by the continuous attrition during flight of
    dust-laden air, which, by wearing away the more delicate
    parts of the barbules, renders them less able to fulfil the
    various purposes of flight, of body-clothing, and of conceal-
    ment ; as well as the preservation of all those colours and
    markings which are especially characteristic of each species,
    and generally of each sex separately, and which, having all
    been developed under the law of utility, are often as import-
    ant as structural characters. Provision is therefore made
    for the annual renewal of every feather by the process called
    moulting. The important wing-feathers, on which the very
    existence of most birds depends, are discarded successively
    in pairs at such intervals as to allow the new growth to be
    well advanced before the next pair are thrown off, so that
    the bird never loses its power of flight, though this may be
    somewhat impaired during the process. The rest of the
    plumage is replaced somewhat more rapidly.

    This regrowth every year of so complex and important
    a part of a bird’s structure, always reproducing in every
    feather the size and shape characteristic of the species,
    while each of the often very diverse feathers grows in its
    right place, and reproduces the various tints and colours on
    certain parts of every feather which go to make up the
    characteristic colours, markings, or ornamental plumes of
    each species of bird, presents us with the most remarkable
    cases of heredity, and of ever-present accurately directed
    growth-power, to be found in the whole range of organic
    nature. >>

    That is what needs to be answered to, and let us just say that Wallace advanced this case in support of the claim that this is evidence of design.


  18. 18
    Querius says:

    Actually, one can see the evolution of feathers demonstrated conclusively in the brilliantly plumaged, flightless Norwegian Blue parrot. 😉


  19. 19
    inunison says:

    kairosfocus @17

    I am afraid in this case issue is more basic. Sloppy thinking and worse writing found in, so called, popular science articles. Nonsense first have to make sense in order to be argued with (pro or contra).

  20. 20
    willh says:


    Ah yes, the Norwegian Blue … well adapted to ‘kipping’ on its back so the studies say 🙂

  21. 21
    Acartia_bogart says:

    Ah yes, the Norwegian Blue… it’s not dead, it’s just pining for the fjords.

  22. 22
    Piotr says:


    Birds (you can call them primitive if you like) predate maniraptorian theropod dinosaurs by 70+ million years, therefore this discussion about first function feather was invented (sic) for, comparing theropod’s plumage with that of Archaeopteryx is really pointless.

    There are quite a few practically complete fossils of non-avian maniraptorans predating Archie by some 10 million years (most of them dicovered very recently, some known to be feathered but flightless). Early maniraptorans were usually small and gracile, and didn’t fossilise well except in particularly favourable taphonomic conditions. But we also have the fairly big (2-3 m long) alvarezsaurid Haplocheirus from 160 Mya, for example.

  23. 23
    humbled says:

    A few quotes by a rare breed of honest scientists might be worth sharing:

    “The record of evolution is still surprisingly jerky and, ironically, we have even fewer examples of
    evolutionary transition than we had in Darwin’s time. By this I mean that the classic cases of
    darwinian change in the fossil record, such as the evolution of the horse in North America, have
    had to be modified or discarded as a result of more detailed information. What appeared to be a
    nice simple progression when relatively few data were available now appears to be much more
    complex and less gradualistic.” (Raup)

    Dr. Colin Patterson, a senior palaeontologist at the British Museum of Natural History said “I fully agree with your comments on the lack of direct illustration of evolutionary transitions in my book. If I knew of any, fossil or living, I would certainly have included them. You suggest that
    an artist should be used to visualise such transformations, but where would he get the information from? I could not, honestly, provide it…

    *Gradualism is a concept I believe in* (believe in? I thought this codswallop was supposed to be science?), not just because of Darwin’s authority, but because my understanding of genetics seems to demand it. Yet Gould and the American Museum people are hard to contradict when they say there are
    no transitional fossils…

    *It is easy enough to make up stories of how one form gave rise to another* (lol – this pretty much sums up most of the Darwin faithful), and to find reasons why the stages should be favoured by natural selection. But such
    *stories are not part of science* (wow the honesty is refreshing), for there is no way of putting them to the test.”

    And of course Gould who said “The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persists as the trade secret of
    paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and
    nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils. ”

    A bit of quote mining, sure, but the picture they paint is pretty clear! The fossil record is NO friend of the Darwinist…

  24. 24
    PaV says:

    From the abstract:

    Pennaceous feathers thus represented an exaptation and were later, in several lineages and following different patterns, recruited for aerodynamic functions. This indicates that the origin of flight in avialans was more complex than previously thought and might have involved several convergent achievements of aerial abilities.

    If someone has looked into the ‘architecture’ of a pennaceous feather, I think they would conclude that this statement by the author is ‘incredible’; that is, not to be believed.

    This entire area is very complicated and controversial. It is sort of like primate ancestors: no one has enough evidence to state concretely what really happened.

    This said, however, I’m sure this author will be proved wrong—and, in short order.

  25. 25
    Cabal says:

    “there is exactly one vera causa plausible explanation, design.”
    All right, say that I buy that argument. Then I’d like to learn something about how, where and when – and by whom? that design was made – and the all-important question of how and by whom it was implemented; that is; how is the process of impleentation carried out?

    Using our own, human designers as role models, it appears that there’s a rather common process of implementation: The design template goes to technicians possessign the tools required to make a working product; the chemical product required for insertion in the subject that is to have its body modified according the the wish of the designer.

    The animal itself has of course no say in such a process, the designer has determined both ‘he’ and ‘her’ (animal “Adam and Eve”?) shall have their genomes changed. Another question that comes to mind is the question of how many individuals will have to be blessed with the improve genome? We are after all dealing with a population and it would seem both risky and unfair not to include the whole population. It would seem very risky to bet on just one couple to start a new branch on the tree of heredity.

    As I am writing this another possilble problem pops up in my mind: IOt seesm to be a documented fact that a limited population; down to just a few individuals are at risk of extinction du to lack of genetic variations withinh the population. That is know from wild animal breeding projects aimed at preserving the species because of a very small population.

    All the things that needs to be taken into account when dealing with artificial design in nature therefore suggest to me that the only viable mechanism would have to be a designer capable of 100% magic to perform the act.

    The question then defaults to “Do we have evidence that such a designer exist?” There’s much more that could be said about all of this and I think ID theorists have much work left before the product is ready for deployment in our human societies.

  26. 26
    Mung says:


    I thought feathered critters with the right combination of preadaptations evolved just once, about 160 million years ago.

    Chance-based evolution strikes again!

    “Pure dumb luck” and not “natural selection” dominates modern evolutionary theory. This is the significant modification to Darwinian theory. Go figure.

  27. 27
    Mung says:


    If feathers were “designed” for flight, why do penguins, ostriches, emus and other flightless birds have them?

    See here

  28. 28
    Querius says:

    Interesting findings about water repellent feathers:



  29. 29
    inunison says:

    Piotr @22

    I don’t see the point of your comment. Oh, well… you are just exactly confirming mine.

  30. 30
    Piotr says:

    inunison @29

    No, I’m not making your point for you. Of course you can redefine “birds” in mid discussion: any maniraptoran contemporary with Archaeopteryx or older is a bird, therefore all birds are older than maniraptorans. So Haplocheirus is a bird, right?

  31. 31
    Piotr says:

    Sorry, I was writing in haste:

    any maniraptoran contemporary with Archaeopteryx or older is a bird, therefore all birds are older than maniraptorans

    Correct that to:

    any maniraptoran contemporary with Archaeopteryx or older is really a bird, therefore birds are older than all maniraptorans

  32. 32
    inunison says:

    Piotr @30

    I was making point about poorly written OP quoted article made by someone who also does not understand the issues surrounding feather evolution. Otherwise I would not be reading that feathers were invented or in the same sentence that Archaeopteryx is both a transitional form and bird fossil. You jumped in defending some confused or controversial understanding about bird evolution against which I was not even arguing. So yes, you are making my point for sure.

  33. 33
    Piotr says:


    You wrote this:

    Birds (you can call them primitive if you like) predate maniraptorian theropod dinosaurs by 70+ million years…

    … which is factually false. That’s all I meant.

  34. 34
    inunison says:

    Piotr @33

    What is factually false (sic) and what is “now known” about bird evolution is matter for another discussion.

  35. 35
    rhampton7 says:

    How Did Pterosaurs Fly?

    Like other flying animals, pterosaurs generated lift with their wings. They needed to perform the same kinds of motions as birds and bats, but their wings evolved independently, developing their own distinct aerodynamic structure.

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