Feathers originated as dinosaur whiskers, U of A experts speculate

The origin of the feather is a mystery tickling the curiosity of two Alberta dinosaur experts.

'One thing you can do with really, really simple feathers ... is you can use them as whiskers'

University of Alberta paleontologists Scott Persons and Philip Currie speculate feathers began as whisker-like sensory bristles on dinosaur faces. (Brian Choo)

The origin of the feather is a mystery two Alberta dinosaur experts hope to solve.

Scott Persons, PhD candidate at University of Alberta, and Philip Currie, professor and Canada Research Chair in Dinosaur Paleobiology, want to reach back millions of years to the very first feathers.

Present-day birds use feathers for flight, social display and as insulation to retain body heat, all highly sophisticated functions, Persons told Edmonton AM's Mark Connolly on Wednesday.

"All those functions require pretty large, pretty complex and pretty dense covering of feathers," he said. "But one thing you can do with really, really simple feathers — feathers that essentially look like short hairs — is you can use them as whiskers, simple tactile sensors."

Maybe, Persons speculates, that's how feathers originated, with the more complex functions developing over time.

Birds still use small facial feathers for the same purpose, he said.

While the fossil record shows some dinosaurs had such simple feathers, it's not yet possible to determine their function.

"We don't yet have a definitive bristle or tactile sensory feather on a dinosaur," he said.

But it may be only a matter of time.

Sensory feathers on a bird's face are unique, containing pigments that make them stiff.

"They're getting to the point where technology can distinguish some of these pigments in fossil dinosaur feathers," Persons said.

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