The Rise and Fall of Four-Winged Birds

March 14, 2013
Ed Yong


Look at the leg of almost any bird and you’ll see feathers covering the thigh but scales covering everything from the ‘knee’ downwards. There are a couple of exceptions—some birds of prey look like they’re wearing baggy trousers and golden eagles have fluffy foot feathers for insulation. But for the most part, living birds have naked lower legs.

It wasn’t always this way. We know that birds evolved from small two-legged, meat-eating dinosaurs that were covered in simple fuzzy feathers. Those on their arms eventually became longer and flatter, evolving from hollow tubes into flat asymmetrical vanes. They transformed from “dino-fuzz” into flight feathers, and their arms transformed into wings.

Meanwhile, it’s tempting to think that the feathers on their hind legs gradually became smaller and gave way to scales. But that’s not how it happened. For a start, we know that some small dinosaurs had long feathers on their legs as well as their arms. And now, 11 newly analysed fossils tell us that some early birds shared the same feature. These specimens suggest that some of our feathered friends had four wings.

It was an ornithologist called William Beebe who first suggested that early birds might have passed through a four-winged gliding stage on their way to evolving true flapping flight. That was in 1915 and though Beebe’s idea was fanciful, there wasn’t much strong evidence behind it.

Then, in 2003, the prolific Chinese dinosaur-hunter Xing Xu found an actual four-winged dinosaur. He called it Microraptor gui. Xu saw the outlines of feathers clearly splaying from the creature’s legs as well as its arms. These were clearly traces of long, flat and asymmetric plumes, much like those that keep today’s flying birds aloft. While it lived, Microraptor probably looked like a starling wearing flares. Xu suggested that itmay have used its leg wings to help it glide, while others later suggested that it could have flown like a biplane.

Xu went on to find other dinosaurs with long leg feathers, such as Anchiornis, Pedopenna and Xiaotingia. For a time, it looked like these feathers disappeared before true birds arrived on the scene, but Xu is now back with 11 new fossils that discount that idea.

Confuciusornis. From Zheng et al, 2013. Science/AAAS

The specimens include species like Sapeornis, Confuciusornis, Cathayornis, and Yanornis. All of them are early birds, perched on primitive branches of the group’s family tree. All of them lived in China during the Cretaceous period. And all of them had four wings, with long feathers on their legs.

You can see them in the images throughout this post—dark shadows protruding from the bones of the lower leg. In some of the specimens, the leg feathers show a stiff, curved central rod (or “rachis”) with symmetrical vanes sticking out from either side. They protrude from the bones at right angles and seem to form a large flat surface.

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