New theory of the evolution of bird flight linked to parental care

Modern birds evolved from ground-dwelling reptiles as their increasingly refined parenting skills led them into the trees, where they could better protect their young, proposes a researcher at the University of California, Davis.

This new theory, contradicting the two leading theories on the evolution of avian flight, appears this month in the German journal "Archaeopteryx," named after a feathered fossil with both reptilian and birdlike traits.

"The evidence indicates that a whole suite of behavioral and physical traits, including feathers and wings, evolved along with improved parenting and brood-care traits," said James Carey, a UC Davis demographer and ecologist. "Once the precursors to birds began to fly, the ecological interplay of flight and parental care may have been mutually reinforced, continuing the evolution of both traits and accelerating the rate at which the physical features of the modern bird were acquired."

The origin of bird flight is a fundamental issue in avian biology and in overall evolutionary theory. Many scientists point to the fossilized specimens of Archaeopteryx as evidence that there was a transitional vertebrate species that developed during the evolution from reptilian dinosaurs to birds. Furthermore, they suggest that the development of flight may explain why birdlike dinosaurs avoided extinction.

Until now, there have been two basic theories on the origins of bird flight. The first, the arboreal theory, is a tree-to-ground model, suggesting that birds' primitive ancestors were tree-dwellers that leapt from branch to branch. Through the ages, the ability to first glide and later fly developed because gliding slowed their fall to earth when they missed a branch.

The second, the cursorial theory, is a ground-up model that suggests that birds evolved from four-legged reptiles. According to this theory, scales on these creatures' front limbs gradually developed into feathers that gave them upwa

Contact: Patricia Bailey
University of California - Davis

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