Birds of a feather: robo-dinosaurs, flightless feathers, and flashy hunting

Why would dinosaur feathers have evolved before flight? According to a new study out of Nature flightless feathers may have been used to flush out small prey. Many modern birds (like the roadrunner) use forelimb feathers for “flush-and-pursuit” hunting, which this paper hypothesizes may also have been true for dinosaurs like Caudipteryx. The team built a robotic model, similar to Caudipteryx, which they named Robopteryx. They then demonstrated that the movement range was similar to what would be expected from flush-and-pursuit hunting, and took the robot on a walk through the park to scare some grasshoppers. Slo-mo video included.

Journal/conference: Scientific Reports

Link to research (DOI): 10.1038/s41598-023-50225-x

Organisation/s: Seoul National University, University of Minnesota Minneapolis, Sungkyunkwan University, Polish Academy of Sciences.

Funder: This work was supported by Convergence Grant 2019-2020 of Seoul National University, Korea; BK 21 Grant to the School of Biological Sciences, Seoul National University, Korea; National Research Foundation of Korea Grants (no. 2022R1I1A2060919, no. 2019R1A2C1004300, no. 2022R1A6A3A01085943, and no. RS-2023-00247087); DGIST R&D Program of the Ministry of Science and ICT (22-BRP-03), Korea.

Media release

From: Springer Nature

Small omnivorous and insectivorous dinosaurs may have flapped small, feathered primitive wings to scare prey out of hiding places, according to a study published in Scientific Reports. The authors built a robot dinosaur named Robopteryx to investigate how grasshoppers responded to different potential scaring behaviours, and speculate that the results could help explain why feathered wings evolved before they were capable of flight in some types of dinosaurs.

Although the remains of numerous species of feathered dinosaurs have been discovered, so far only members of one group of dinosaurs known as Pennaraptora have been discovered with pennaceous feathers — the type of feathers required for flight. Fossils show that these developed first on small primitive or proto-wings that were not strong enough for flight and whose functions are currently unknown.

Jinseok Park, Hyungpil Moon, Yuong‑Nam Lee, Sang‑im Lee, Piotr Jablonski, and colleagues hypothesise that the proto-wings may have been used for ‘flush-pursuit’ foraging, a hunting strategy observed in multiple species of contemporary insectivorous and omnivorous bird species such as the greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) and the northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos). This strategy consists of predators using displays of contrasting-coloured feathers on their wings and tails to startle prey out of hiding and into fleeing, at which point they can be pursued and caught.

The authors built a robot named Robopteryx to test their hypothesis, basing it on the size, shape, and estimated movement range of the pennaraptoran dinosaur Caudipteryx — a two-legged, peacock-sized predator that lived approximately 124 million years ago. They then used Robopteryx to imitate several variations of flush-pursuit display behaviours — with the full sequence consisting of spreading the proto-wings and raising a tail, pausing with them outstretched, then folding them back — and observed the behavioural response of grasshoppers to the display behaviour. Grasshoppers were used as they respond to flush-pursuit display behaviour and belong to the order Orthoptera which existed concurrently with Caudipteryx.

The authors found significant positive associations between the use of the proto-wings in the display behaviour and both the likelihood of the grasshopper fleeing — with 93% of tested grasshoppers fleeing when the proto-wings were used compared to 47% without — and how far away Robopteryx was when they fled. They also found significant associations between both the presence of white patches on the proto-wings and the presence of feathers on the tail and the likelihood of the grasshopper fleeing.

The authors conclude that their results with Robopteryx support the flush-pursuit hypothesis, and provide a new perspective on why feathered wings and tails may have initially evolved in dinosaurs.


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