Flying on Wings and Legs

An ancient bird had feathers on its legs that may have helped it fly.

A bird with feathered legs that help it fly may sound strange, but a scientist says that the earliest known bird could have used its legs in just that way.

Archaeopteryx lived 150 million years ago and had teeth and claws like a dinosaur, but wings and feathers like a bird. Feathers also covered its back legs, and a new report argues that these feathered legs acted like small extra wings.

A fresh look at a fossilized Archaeopteryx has shown that this ancient bird had feathers on its legs that may have helped it fly. The inset shows how the bird may have looked with feathers.

Nick Longrich

Nick Longrich of the University of Calgary started wondering if Archaeopteryx might have used leg feathers for flying after researchers in China found a fossil of a ancient bird that had long flight feathers on both its wings and its legs.

Longrich studied an Archaeopteryx fossil that had been found in 1877. When it was first discovered, it had shown hind feathers. But when the fossil was prepared for display, the feathers had been stripped away to show the bones more clearly.

All was not lost, however. When researchers split a rock in two to reveal a fossil, one side has the bones and the other side has an imprint of the fossil. Usually, scientists look at the fossil, but Longrich decided to look at the imprint. It still showed the feathers.

Could the feathers have helped Archaeopteryx fly? Because the feathers were more like the ones that modern birds use for flying than the ones they use just to keep warm, Longrich concluded that Archaeopteryx could have used them for flying, too. He found that the feathered back legs would have allowed the creature to make tighter turns and fly more slowly that it could have without its feathered legs.

But some other scientists don’t think Archaeopteryx could have spread its legs out like wings. They suggest that the hind-leg feathers were like ones on eagles today, which just keep the birds warm and streamlined.—J. Rehmeyer

Going Deeper:

Rehmeyer, Julie. 2006. Flying with their legs: Hind feathers made primitive bird nimble. Science News 170(Sept. 23):197-198. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20060923/fob6.asp .

You can learn more about Archaeopteryx at www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/diapsids/birds/archaeopteryx.html (University of California, Berkeley).

Ramsayer, Kate. 2004. Early birds ready to rumble. Science News for Kids (Oct. 27). Available at http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20041027/Note3.asp .

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