RALEIGH, N.C.—How did the ancestors of birds evolve the ability to fly? That birds are descended from small, meat-eating dinosaurs is established. Exactly how the creatures conquered the air remains a mystery, however. Now the authors of a new study of a controversial feathered dinosaur say they have resolved a key aspect of the problem—namely, how the animals controlled their flight once they became airborne.
Two theories have dominated the long-running debate over how bird flight evolved. In the so-called cursorial scenario, the ability to fly emerged in terrestrial dinosaurs that raced across the ground with their arms outstretched and leaped into the air after prey or out of harm’s way, their wing feathers providing lift. The arboreal scenario, in contrast, supposes that flight arose in tree-dwelling dinosaurs that were built for gliding and started flapping their arms in order to stay aloft longer.