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Early birds of a feather mated together?

Artistic reconstruction of the feathered ornithomimid dinosaurs found in Alberta.
[Image Julius Csotonyi. Please Note: This image is available here only in 72 dpi. To obtain a higher resolution version for print publication, please contact the artist at julius.csotonyi@gmail.com.]

The earliest feathers may have served decoration purposes, instead of helping animals to fly, according to a new study.

The oldest known feathers have been found on dinosaurs, the ancestors of modern-day birds. Most known dinosaur fossils with well-preserved feathers have come from China, but Darla Zelenitsky of the University of Calgary and her colleagues have now analyzed some interesting specimens from Alberta, Canada.

The researchers looked at a set of fossils of an ostrich-like, feathered dinosaur called Ornithomimus edmontonicus. The fossils were from one young dinosaur and two adults.

All three specimens appear to have been covered in short, downy feathers. But, only ONE adult specimen shows evidence of long feathers, with stiff shafts down the middle, like the feathers found on the wings of flying birds today. These feathers appeared on the adult's wing-like forelimbs.

The fact that the younger individuals didn't seem to need the long feathers suggests that the feathers weren't being used for flying. Instead, the older dinosaurs may have used them to attract members of the opposite sex once they were old enough to start mating. (A peacock is an example of a modern-day bird that uses feathers for this purpose.)

Feathers may have taken on new roles -- such as keeping the animals warm, or making flight possible -- as the dinosaur lineage evolved, the researchers propose.

The study appears in the 26 October issue of the journal Science.