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Robopteryx: Dinosaur feather secrets revealed by a robot dinosaur

In a study that challenges our understanding of dinosaur evolution, researchers have uncovered a remarkable use of feathers in small dinosaurs

The study suggests that these ancient creatures, known for their omnivorous and insectivorous diets, may have used their feathered wings to startle and hunt prey.

This discovery sheds new light on the evolution of feathered wings in dinosaurs, long before they were adapted for flight.

Dinosaur robot named Robopteryx

At the heart of this research lies an innovative approach: the creation of a dinosaur robot named Robopteryx.

The robot was designed to mimic the physical characteristics of the pennaraptoran dinosaur Caudipteryx.

The researchers used Robopteryx to investigate how modern-day grasshoppers, representatives of a group that co-existed with dinosaurs, reacted to various scaring tactics. 

“Flush-pursuit” foraging

The results showed that Robopteryx, with its feathered proto-wings and tail, effectively startled grasshoppers into fleeing.

This supports the theory that similar strategies were used by small dinosaurs millions of years ago.

The research team, including Jinseok Park, Hyungpil Moon, Yuong‑Nam Lee, Sang‑im Lee, and Piotr Jablonski, focused on the concept of “flush-pursuit” foraging.

This technique, observed in modern birds like the greater roadrunner and the northern mockingbird, involves startling prey with sudden movements and contrasting feather colors, thus flushing them out into the open for capture. 

The team proposed that proto-wings, the early form of wings seen in dinosaurs, were initially used for this hunting strategy rather than flight.

Evolution of dinosaur feathers and wings

Until now, the presence of pennaceous feathers – necessary for flight – was confirmed only in the Pennaraptora group of dinosaurs. 

However, these feathers first appeared on proto-wings that were not yet capable of flight, leaving scientists puzzled about their original function.

The findings from the Robopteryx experiment offer a plausible explanation: these proto-wings were likely used as a hunting tool, providing a strategic advantage in startling and catching prey.

The researchers meticulously designed Robopteryx based on Caudipteryx, a small, two-legged predator from approximately 124 million years ago.

They replicated several flush-pursuit display behaviors and observed the grasshoppers’ reactions. 

Robopteryx and dinosaur feathers

The results were clear: a significant increase in the likelihood of the grasshoppers fleeing when confronted with the proto-wing displays, especially when white patches or feathers were present on the wings or tail.

The study not only supports the flush-pursuit hypothesis but also opens new avenues in understanding the evolutionary pathways of feathered dinosaurs. 

The use of feathers for hunting before their adaptation for flight suggests a complex and multi-faceted evolutionary process, highlighting the intricate relationship between physical traits and survival strategies in the ancient world.

More about Caudipteryx and dinosaur feathers

As discussed above, Caudipteryx is a remarkable genus of theropod dinosaurs that stands out as a crucial link in the evolutionary chain between dinosaurs and birds.

Unearthed in the Yixian Formation in China, this small, feathered dinosaur lived during the Early Cretaceous period, about 125 million years ago.

Emergence of dinosaur feathers

Measuring about one meter in length, Caudipteryx showcases a fascinating blend of avian and reptilian features. Its body, covered in feathers, hints at the early stages of feather evolution.

The feathers were not for flight but possibly served for display or temperature regulation. This finding challenges our understanding of feather evolution, suggesting that feathers initially evolved for purposes other than flight.

Characteristics and diet

Possessing a beak-like structure with teeth, Caudipteryx reveals the transitional morphology between the toothed jaws of reptiles and the beaked mouths of modern birds. Its skeletal structure further illustrates this transition.

The forelimbs, though feathered, were too short to support flight, indicating an evolutionary experimentation with feathered limbs.

The diet of Caudipteryx, primarily composed of plants and small animals, provides insights into the dietary adaptations of early feathered dinosaurs.

This omnivorous diet reflects a versatile lifestyle, possibly a key factor in the survival and evolution of early birds.

Still more to learn

In summary, Caudipteryx’s discovery profoundly impacts our understanding of the dinosaur-bird transition.

It serves as a vivid example of evolutionary experimentation, showcasing the gradual shift from reptilian to avian characteristics.

By studying Caudipteryx, scientists gain invaluable insights into the complex and fascinating journey from dinosaurs to the birds we see today.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports

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