Narrow Primary Feather Rachises in Confuciusornis and Archaeopteryx Suggest Poor Flight Ability

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Science  14 May 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5980, pp. 887-889
DOI: 10.1126/science.1188895

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Poor Flight of the Ancients

In order to fly, the feathers of birds must be strong enough to support the bird's weight without breaking or bending. The main part of a feather providing structural support is its central shaft, which stiffens the feather along its length. In modern birds, this is hollow to reduce weight. Nudds and Dyke (p. 887) show that the cross-section of the shaft of the Mesozoic birds Archaeopteryx and Confuciusornis was much smaller than that of modern birds. Calculations imply that even if it was solid, it would have been too weak to support powered flight and barely strong enough to allow gliding. Thus, powered flight probably arose later in the evolution of birds and these early birds were poor fliers.


The fossil birds Archaeopteryx and Confuciusornis had feathered wings resembling those of living birds, but their flight capabilities remain uncertain. Analysis of the rachises of their primary feathers shows that the rachises were much thinner and weaker than those of modern birds, and thus the birds were not capable of flight. Only if the primary feather rachises were solid in cross-section (the strongest structural configuration), and not hollow as in living birds, would flight have been possible. Hence, if Archaeopteryx and Confuciusornis were flapping flyers, they must have had a feather structure that was fundamentally different from that of living birds. Alternatively, if they were only gliders, then the flapping wing stroke must have appeared after the divergence of Confuciusornis, likely within the enantiornithine or ornithurine radiations.

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