Posted by: Craig Woolheater on March 18th, 2013
Thought you knew what ancient birds looked like? Think again.
The ancestors of some modern bird species had four “wings” instead of two, according to a new study, and that may have played a major role in the evolution of early birds and flight.
In the study, a group of researchers in China analyzed the well-preserved fossil specimens of primitive birds from the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature. They found that 11 bird specimens had plumed legs as well as the usual pair of wings we’re used to seeing in modern-day birds. The fossils lived about 130 million years ago.
As The New York Times notes, feathered legs have previously been seen in fossils of flying dinosaurs like the Microraptor, a T-Rex relative.
It’s now generally accepted that the large leg feathers of the Microraptor were useful in flight, but a nagging question long remained unanswered: Did birds go through a “four-winged” stage, or were dinosaurs like the Microraptor merely an evolutionary side-branch?
The new study, which published in the journal Science on Friday, has provided the first “solid evidence” that at least some ancestors of modern birds not only had four wings for a time, but also very large feathers on the hind limbs — a feature that hints strongly at flight.
Read the entire article here.