PerspectivePaleontology

Feathers Before Flight

Science  10 May 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6133, pp. 690-692
DOI: 10.1126/science.1235463

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Summary

Feathers are branched structures consisting of β-keratin—a rigid protein material formed by pleated β sheets—with a hollow central shaft. They are strikingly different from other forms of vertebrate integument such as scales, skin, and hair. Until recently, evolutionary hypotheses envisioned their origin through elongation of broad, flat scales driven by selection for aerial locomotion such as gliding or flapping flight. Over the course of the past two decades, fossil discoveries, especially from northeast China, have revealed that the early precursors of feathers were filament-like rather than expanded scales and that branched pinnate feathers of modern aspect predate the origin of active flight. The revolution in our understanding of feather evolution continues, driven by rapid fossil discoveries and by new information from the study of extant birds.