Thursday, May 13, 2010

Archaeopteryx, Birds, Feathers, and Fine-Tuning

"Early Feathers Too Weak for Flight"
Dinosaur News, Discovery News (May 13, 2010)

"The early bird -- didn't fly very well.

"Recent fossil discoveries that showed feathers on some of the early flying animals, like the well-known Archaeopteryx, created a bit of a flap in the archaeological world.

"And now comes a report that those feathers may have been too weak for use in flapping flight -- helpful only for gliding.

"Robert L. Nudds and Gareth J. Dyke report in Friday's edition of the journal Science that the central shaft of feathers on Archaeopteryx and Confuciusornis were much more slender than on feathers of similar-sized birds today.

"Archaeopteryx flourished about 145 million years ago and Confuciusornis came along later, about 120 million years ago...."

There's more to the article, of course. A sort of bottom line is that we've got more information about Archaeopteryx feathers now - and can fine-tune models of the creature's behavior. Right now, it looks like Archaeopteryx was arboreal, a five-dollar word meaning the critters lived in trees. With its unflappable wings, it couldn't have been a strong flier- but it could have jumped off branches and glided.

We still don't know if the shafts on Archaeopteryx feathers were hollow, like contemporary birds, or solid. It didn't matter, in practical terms.

If Archaeopteryx had tried flapping it's wings like one of today's birds, and feathers were solid, they'd have snapped. If they were hollow, they'd have buckled. The things just weren't big enough to take the forces birds' feathers do.

Well, that's assuming that Archaeopteryx feathers weren't made out of something exotic, like titanium. That's interesting speculation - and probably a biological impossibility.

These days, we don't have to guess what Archaeopteryx feathers were made of:

"Chemical signature of Archaeopteryx revealed"
The Hindu (May 13, 2010)

"For the first time ever, chemical analysis of Archaeopteryx — a transitional fossil between dinosaurs and bird — has been carried out, and first ever maps of dinobird's chemistry have been created. The maps reveal half a dozen elements (mainly phosphorus, sulphur, zinc, calcium, manganese, iron) that were actually part of the living animal.

"The study marks a paradigm shift in the way palaeontology samples are studied in future. Chemical analysis of fossils, both hard and soft tissues, along with the rock in which they are embedded (matrix), would soon become a norm...."

There's quite a bit more detail in The Hindu article, about the chemical analysis and what it means.

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