Fossil Feathers Giving Clues to How and When Dinosaurs Took Flight

Scientists are now using fossil data to understand the genetic evolution from dinosaurs to birds.

fossil feathers
It's widely known that dinosaurs, at one time, had feathers. What isn't known, however, is when dinosaurs finally took flight. New research has revealed the answer. (Getty)
Getty Images/Stocktrek Images

Paleontologists are looking at 160 million year old fossil feathers from a crow-sized, four-winged dinosaur to determine how the prehistoric beasts eventually took flight.

According to Science Daily, the Anchiornis dinosaurs lived in what is now China and roamed the Earth some 10 million years before Archaeopteryx, the first recognized bird species.

A team of researchers from Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology, North Carolina State University, and University of South Carolina have analyzed Anchiornis feathers to gain insight on how, on a molecular level, the feathers differ from those of younger fossilized birds and modern birds.

“Modern bird feathers are composed primarily of beta-keratin (β-keratin), a protein also found in skin, claws, and beaks of reptiles and birds. Feathers differ from these other β-keratin containing tissues, because the feather protein is modified in a way that makes them more flexible,” Mary Schweitzer, professor of biological sciences at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the research, explained.

Schweitzer is confident that she has narrowed down the point at which feathers evolved into flightworthiness: “Molecular clocks, which scientists use as benchmarks for evolutionary and genetic divergence, predict that the deletion, and thus functional flight feathers, evolved around 145 million years ago.”

The research team’s work shows that scientists can use molecular fossil data, in this case fossil feathers, to help pinpoint the timing of genetic events in the dino-bird transition.

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