After being fed a lifetime of pictures of featherless dinos, it still may be hard to wrap one’s head around some dinosaurs being feathered. At least it is for me. But for those beasts of death that did have feathers, apparently they did so because it was sexy, not because they were flying or anything.
“They may have initially evolved as a secondary sexual characteristic,” says a paper published Thursday in the prestigious journal Science.
“These wing-like structures would have been used for reproductive activities (courtship, display, brooding) and were only later … co-opted for other roles including flight.”
The fossils in question — the oldest feathered dinosaurs ever found — are from three members of the species Ornithomimus edmontonicus, an agile, two-legged dinosaur that looked like a large ostrich and most likely lived off a mixed diet of bugs, fruit, leaves, eggs and the occasional small animal.
Ornithomimus aren’t the direct ancestors of modern birds, but still offer clues to their development.
“Our specimens show the most primitive occurrence of wing-like structures,” says Zelenitsky. “These specimens thus push back the occurrence of wing-like structures and give insight into their early uses.”
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