As researchers continue to probe the origin of flight, studies of fossils have shown that theropods–particularly coelurosaurian dinosaurs, which closely resemble modern birds—had large feathers on both their fore limbs and hind limbs. However, extensive evidence for these leg feathers didn’t exist in the earliest birds. But now, a new examination of fossils reported today in the journal Science reveals several examples of this four-winged anatomy in modern birds’ oldest common ancestors.
Modern birds have two types of feathers: vaned feathers that cover the outside of the body, and the down feathers that grow underneath them. Researchers studying the approximately 120 million-year-old fossils of 11 primitive birds from the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Natural History in China found that one type of vaned plumage, also known as pennaceous feathers, was neatly preserved in skeletal fossils of these specimens, along each creatures’ hind limbs. After this find, the researchers must have been flying high: The feathers of birds’ wings, known as flight feathers, are long, stiff and asymmetrically shaped pennaceous feathers, similar to those found in the fossils. When fanned together, pennaceous feathers form the broad surfaces of birds’ wingspans—without these surfaces, birds cannot stay aloft.
Pennaceous feathers, which are composed of many flattened barbs, existed in some winged dinosaurs. Finding them on the hind legs of early birds suggests that before birds used two wings to fly, they may have depended on four. Over millions of years, however, birds gradually lost the feathers on this extra set of wings.