History Files


Mesozoic World

Dinosaur Flight Origins

BBC News, 16 January 2003

A new theory of how dinosaurs learned to fly has emerged.

According to a US scientist, flight may have evolved in two-legged dinosaurs that flapped their feathered fore-limbs to climb slopes.

They eventually developed true wings and became flying birds, says Kenneth Dial of the University of Montana.

The idea is based on a study of the habits of modern flightless birds, which beat their wings to scurry up hills and get away from predators.

It turns out that the physics of this sort of flapping motion is different from that of aerial flight.

Foot traction

Professor Dial says it helps push the birds' feet against the slope, thus improving traction - in the same way that spoilers work on a racing car.

He came to this conclusion by studying partridges running up hills and measuring their speed.

Even chicks with downy fluff were better at getting up steep slopes than those whose flight feathers had been trimmed or removed.

By modifying these wing movements, birds or their ancestors - the dinosaurs - may have been able to launch themselves into the air.

Fossils show that some dinosaurs had feathered fore-limbs but were unable to fly - something that has puzzled palaeontologists.

"The big dilemma has been, 'How do you explain the partial wing?'," says Professor Dial.

"It turns out the proto-wings - precursors to the wings birds have today - actually acted more like a spoiler on the back of a race car to keep the animal sure-footed even while climbing up nearly vertical surfaces."

Rival theories

Professor Dial believes that what he calls wing-assisted incline running was first seen in prehistoric times.

But the idea is likely to ruffle a few feathers. There has been heated debate about how dinosaurs learned to fly.

One camp believes ground-dwellers grew feathers that helped them run faster and eventually become airborne.

A more recent school of thought favours the idea that flight arose from the tree down - as small meat-eating dinosaurs leapt from branch-to-branch in the canopies.

Dr Angela Milner, a dinosaur expert at London's Natural History Museum, says the latest theory is a "third way".

"The work adds a new dimension to the whole debate on how flight evolved," she said.

"A predator escape mechanism using wing-assisted incline running fits with what we see in the fossils."

The research was published in the journal Science. Professor Dial's theory was featured in an exhibition called 'Dino Birds, the feathered dinosaurs of China', at London's Natural History Museum in 2003.



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