On Thursday, Chinese scientists released the results of a study that they claim provides the first “solid evidence” that some recently excavated primitive bird species flew with the use of four wings, the New York Times reports.
The group made a detailed analysis of 11 four-winged fossil specimens that lived about 130 million years ago.
They reported in the journal Science that their study indicated these species had taken on the four-wing body plan before ditching the hind-limb feathers and continuing alone with the presumably more efficient feathered forelimb wings.
The Chinese paleontologists said this evolutionary transition in the birds “may have played an important role in the evolution of flight.”
At the time, these “basal bird” species appeared to be exchanging their hind-limb feathers for scales and developing feet that were traditionally more birdlike.
The researchers suggested that the four-winged creatures were already preparing to use their hind limbs for movement on land.
Today’s news is a continuation of research begun more than a decade ago.
The Chinese made their first discoveries of these feathered limbs at the turn of this century in dinosaur species named Microraptor and Sinornithosaurus.
It is a widely held belief that the large leg feathers in Microraptor were used for either powered flight or merely to glide between trees or parachute to the ground.
While the new findings did confirm the presence of four-feathered wings early in the bird lineage as well, the Chinese scientists admitted that the aerodynamic function of this configuration could not be concretely determined.
Still, the group believes the second set of wings did have a tangible effect on the act of flying.
The research team, led by Zheng Xiaoting, of the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature, wrote that the stiff vanes and curving feathers in certain dinosaurs and the basal birds were “aerodynamic in function, providing lift, creating drag and/or enhancing maneuverability, and thus played a role in flight.”
Dr. Zheng’s group acknowledged that the preservation of most of the specimens, revealed only in two dimensions, made it hard to reconstruct the precise location and use of the leg feathers.
Each skeleton is preserved either with the legs splayed outward or in a crouched position under the body.
Nevertheless, the researchers wrote, “there is circumstantial data that might be useful in inferring the distribution and orientation of leg feathers.”
Generally speaking, the leg feathers of modern birds, if they exist at all, are not as developed as the arm feathers.
They are usually small and fluffy, as in some chickens and pouter pigeons, and presumably serve to protect and insulate the legs, not to help in flight.
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