By: Live Science Staff
Published: 11/23/2012 10:10 AM EST on LiveScience
Some of the first birdlike creatures to emerge during the age of the dinosaurs probably couldn't get their heavy wings to take them off the ground, and they likely opted for gliding over flying, new research shows.
Modern flying birds have a single primary layer of easily separated long feathers covered with short ones — a design that helps them overcome drag when taking flight. A new analysis of the fossils of two of their ancestors shows that the arrangement of feathers for primitive birds was quite different.
The birdlike dinosaurs Anchiornis huxley and Archaeopteryx lithographica had dense overlapping layers of wing feathers that were likely difficult to separate, the researchers found. Instead of lifting off from the ground, these creatures probably climbed trees and used their wings to glide from a height, the scientists said.
What's more, differences in the wing feathers of Archaeopteryx and Anchiornis appear to represent early evolutionary experiments in wing design, according to the researchers. For example, Archaeopteryx had multiple layers of long feathers, while Anchiornis had an abundance of simple feathers that overlapped like a penguin's, said study researcher Nicholas R. Longrich, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale.
Longrich's colleague Jakob Vinther, a former Yale doctoral student, now with the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, said the fossil analyses add to an intricate picture of how feathers and modern birds evolved.
"We now seem to see that feathers evolved initially for insulation," Vinther explained in a statement. "More complex vaned or pinnate feathers evolved for display. These display feathers turned out to be excellent membranes that could have been utilized for aerial locomotion, which only very late in bird evolution became what we consider flapping flight."
The research was detailed today (Nov. 21) online in the journal Current Biology.
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Cutest Dinosaur Ever?
A baby megalosauroid Sciurumimus is perched on a rock by the Bavarian Sea in Germany.
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A bird-like dromaeosaur leaves footprints in the ground. The name Dromaeosauridae means "running lizards."
The Utahraptor ostrommaysorum is the largest known member of the Dromaeosauridae family.
Dromaeosaurids were feathered carnivores that lived in the Cretaceous Period.
The carnivorous Saurornitholestes finds its prey by digging in burrows.
Not Always Sleeping
Even though this troodontid's name "Mei long" means "sleeping dragon," the duck-sized dino is thought to have sometimes dashed through the forest.
The colors of Anchiornis's feathers are known from fossils--and its name means "near bird."
Anchiornis are proposed to serve as a link between modern-day birds and non-avian dinosaurs.
Licking The Wound
The Talos sampsoni takes a rest to tend to an injured toe.
The Jinfengopteryx elegans perches on a fallen log, eying a beetle hungrily.
The Epidexipteryx hui searches for grubs to eat.
Coming In For The Landing
The Archaeopteryx was once widely considered the earliest known bird. Scientists now believe the feathered animal was a dinosaur.
Mother And Young
The bird-like Caudipteryx zoui lived in the early Cretaceous Period.
On The Run
The Sinosauropteryx prima ran through the forests of the early Cretaceous period.
The Sinornithosaurus millenii pauses for a drink.