The first feathers were not used for flight

The first feathers were not used for flight

Ideas are not the exclusive property of the human mind. Not even an animal's brain. Genes that undergo incomplete replication for a sufficient period of time can also contain them. They are clearly not thoughts of conscience. Nor does it fall into our strange classification of rational or irrational, happy or functioning. But if an idea is, as Jorge Wagensberg suggests, a principle of knowledge with a certain probability of ending up in a problem, then genes clearly have it. One of the most interesting objects in the 3.8 billion year history of life on Earth is the feather.

It is undoubtedly a natural idea that, unlike cultural ideas, can precede the problem it is supposed to solve. Such natural ideas have the advantage that, when a problem arises, they solve it immediately and multiply in abundance, but they have the disadvantage of being slow to appear: if they start to get cold suddenly, it is more practical to cover yourself with a coat. Instead of waiting a million years to see if feathers will appear spontaneously after 20,000 generations.

The origin of the feather is not flight

The feathers we now so often associate with flight appeared about 230 million years ago. There are many fossils of dinosaurs and pterosaurs (their evolutionary cousins) with feathers that were unable to take off due to the dimensions of their bodies and limbs. “It is unlikely that the original feathers were used for flight,” explains Bernat Vila, a paleontologist on dinosaur ecology at the Catalan Miquel Crosafont Institute of Paleontology. “Flight is secondary, and appears through a process of accepting a structure that originally develops one role and is then modified to perform another “

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Why were these feathers then? While they were waiting for the opportunity to fly, were they actually performing the function of thermal insulation or showing off when mating? One good reason to choose thermal insulation is that small birds have a higher feather density than large birds. It is known that the smaller the animal, the more heat it loses in proportion to its weight through the contact surface with the outside.

Now, however, a study has been published in the journal Scientific reports It suggests a new and primitive use for feathers that would have been preserved to this day: to scare prey out of hiding and easier to catch.

The idea — cultural, yes — came from a group of scientists led by biologist Jinseok Park, of Seoul National University, in South Korea, as they observed the behavior of birds like the fat cormorant (Geocoxex ca(o The multilingual meme)Multilingual mime): When they locate prey, they approach it by repeatedly opening and closing their wings to get it out of the burrow and catch it more comfortably.


To test this hypothesis, the researchers built Robobotrex. It is a robot inspired by the size, weight and range of motion of dinosaurs CaudipteryxIt walked on two legs, was a little less than a meter long, weighed about 5 kilograms, and had short upper limbs covered with feathers. They also had feathers at the end of their tails.

Once the robot was built, the scientists placed it in front of the grasshoppers and watched the insects react to the different movements. They were seen startled and took off 97% of the time when the robot flapped its initial feathered wings, which mimicked the potential movement of a bird's upper limbs. Caudipteryx.

In contrast, if the primary wings did not move or had no feathers, the insects were startled and moved 47% of the time. These findings led them to the conclusion that the presence of feathers on the front of some dinosaurs would have been an advantage in obtaining food.

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“It's very interesting work, and raises a very plausible and well-founded hypothesis,” says Villa. “They found that when feathers are located at the ends of the tail and wings and have more contrasting colors, the locusts are more fearful, which may be caused by natural selection in the evolution of feathers.” To become thicker and stronger.” In other words, to become more suitable for flying.

Versatile idea

So what came first? Thermal insulation, seductive shine, or display of hunting feathers? If we choose display applications, there is also the possibility that a display similar to that used to intimidate prey may have some benefit in increasing apparent body size and intimidating potential predators. So what came first? the coat? Seduction? the hunt? Self-defense?

What is clear is that the feather is one of the most complex and diverse natural ideas in the history of life. As such, beings with a certain intelligence such as humans have acquired it. We initially used it as an ornament, which is still used today and is linked to one of its possible original applications. As is the current manufacturing of undercoats.

What is no longer, and therefore is the exclusive product of the creative mind, is the use of the pen to leave lines of ink on paper and to create universal works of human culture such as Don Quixote And the A dialogue about the two largest systems in the world Galileo. However, deep down, these other manifestations of the pen also respond to a certain kind of flight: that of the mind that ascends to look at the world or the human psyche and draws a beautiful and somewhat deliberate, but eternal, map of it. Incomplete and tentative.

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